Healthcare is unsustainable.
That simple, but powerful statement is true in many countries around the globe.
- According to OECD projections, in Europe, public expenditure on health and long-term care in OECD countries is set to increase from around 6% of GDP today to almost 9% of GDP in 2030 and as much as 14% by 2060, unless governments can contain costs. The international organization also found that the causes for the rising public costs stem from the growing needs of ageing populations, the rising incomes driving higher expectation – and the introduction of new technologies.
- The number of medical professionals does not keep up with the growing needs of ageing or increasing populations, there are many places with doctor or nurse shortages.
- Technology is outpacing the healthcare systems and the bureaucratic authorization systems allowing innovative treatment methods or new pharmaceutical solutions.
It is an alarming situation and I believe that on the long-run only a bottom-up change with the help of disruptive health technologies can allow for arriving at more sustainable health systems while preserving the human touch as the highest priority.
First and foremost, the individuals in the bottom of the pyramid must change.
The way patients manage their health and disease; and the way physicians practice medicine need to adopt to the increasingly technological world. For the latter, it is simply indispensable for survival. Imagine the scenario in which digitally versed patients find solutions faster through untested and unregulated technologies than their caregivers! Healthcare would sink into chaos and an even worse system than without any change at all.
So, I believe the solution is the following: first of all to understand how digital technologies and healthcare can live in fruitful symbiosis, and then to facilitate the bottom-up changes, the driving force behind the organic development in healthcare. The individuals in the bottom of the pyramid start changing the system. We have seen such movements from those of empowered patients and tech-savvy physicians.
But what if policy makers worldwide would facilitate the change?
What if they could create a framework which welcomes innovation and still keeps patients safe? What if they would help people understand the dangers and the advantages of the upcoming technological revolution? Sounds impossible?
There are promising examples to look up to.
In a drive towards a smoke-free society by 2035, the Norwegian Medical Association (NMA) announced in January 2016, it is pressing the government to back its proposal for a ban on tobacco sales to citizens born after the year 2000.
The association hopes that the proposed legislation will mean future generations will be unable to buy tobacco in the Nordic country. Such a way, the NMA wants to avoid criminalization of the use of tobacco, and it rather wants to introduce a general denial to access to the harmful substance.
Unfortunately, while the idea is pioneering, neither the Norwegian government nor opposition parties believe that it is currently feasible.
In June, The Guardian British daily reported that millions of people will receive devices and apps free on the National Health Service (NHS) to help them manage conditions such as diabetes and heart disease in a major drive to use technology to reduce patient deaths.
A panel of experts will approve the first 10 to 15 such devices and apps later this year. Patients will be able to access them from April 2017.
Such solutions, as AliveCore or MyCOPD can save thousands of lives while saving millions of pounds for the British health service. AliveCore, a mobile heart monitor that gives electrocardiogram readings within 30 seconds, can detect, monitor and manage arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats. They are a key cause of sudden cardiac death, which kills 100,000 people across the UK every year. MyCOPD is already used by some patients in Porthmouth due to the NHS’s latest action, and it helps those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, such as emphysema and bronchitis, to manage their condition on their smartphone or tablet.
Moreover, the NHS urged doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to embrace the growing opportunities technology offers both to help promote health and tackle the service’s chronic financial problems by saving on treatment and rehabilitation costs.
I hope other developed and developing countries will very soon follow the British example.
Although the third example does not originate from the field of healthcare, it is important to also have a wider comprehensive view about global trends which have an impact on healthcare.
In April, The Guardian reported that Dutch politicians have voted through a motion calling on the country to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars starting in 2025. If the Senate passes the bill, it will become legally binding. Originally, the bill contained the general ban on petrol and diesel cars, but it was toned down so as to allow existing cars to stay in use, but would “strive to prevent” the sales of any future ones, ensuring that Dutch roads gradually electrify over the next decade or so.
It is a groundbreaking initiative both for the environment and general health issues. It would be great if other countries followed the Dutch example. Just think about the unsustainable situation in Beijing, China, where environmental and health risks are as high as never before due to the exponentially growing car industry and the factories burning coal for production. How great would it be if policy-makers adopted similar measures to improve the quality of life in China?
Let’s push policy-makers towards change!
As healthcare systems are unsustainable and full of sub-optimal solutions for patients, in the last years it has become clear that it is extremely difficult to navigate through such systems. Patient movements such as the Blue Button Initiative which enables patients to know more about their own healthcare data, and the idea of Participatory Healthcare all attempt to improve the situation and enable patients to armor themselves in the face of challenges coming from a poorly designed system.
How easier would it be to dedicate the same effort to a cause which is facilitated by governments and policy makers?
Let’s push them into this direction by showing them promising examples like the ones above.