For many industries, much of the promise of digitalisation hinges on delivering speed through simplification.
A manufacturing business, for example, might be able to use technology to monitor global operations in a single, aggregated system which enables it to integrate steps or store raw materials closer to where they are needed.
A professional services firm might use videoconferencing and collaboration platforms to match problems with experts more efficiently.
And a retail business might give its customers direct insight into stock levels to save their employees labour.
It is an almost-universal truth that high-quality, high-volume data – especially when managed with smart, AI-driven tools – has the potential to reduce complexity and so increase efficiency within organisations.
There is an increasingly-urgent pressure being placed on healthcare to modernise and digitalise if it is to remain resilient in a shifting economic and social context
It is only almost universal, however, because some challenges are irreducibly complex.
Healthcare is, perhaps, the most-dramatic example of this.
While the context of medicine may be rapidly evolving, the human body it aims to treat cannot be made simpler.
Indeed, as new treatments and higher standards of care develop, the range of specialist skills and advanced technologies which a comprehensive, modern healthcare system requires will only grow.
The digital health mandate
There is, nonetheless, an increasingly-urgent pressure being placed on healthcare to modernise and digitalise if it is to remain resilient in a shifting economic and social context.
Indeed, as well as being the most-significant healthcare crisis for a generation, the pandemic was a flashpoint which rapidly accelerated many existing trends in order to continue to deliver care in the face of adversity, with healthcare providers rapidly replacing paper documentation with digital solutions and more widely enabling consultation through videoconferencing.
Now, as the keenest crisis point of the pandemic recedes, many of those providers are finding that initiatives which perhaps took a back seat in recent years are now more urgent, while new challenges are emerging as healthcare professionals and their employers recover from a tumultuous and stressful period.
For example, technologies which were once explorative prospects, like AI-powered diagnostics and robotic surgery, are now solidifying into vital tools with real-world consequences, while trends towards changing the mindset of professionals to focus more on preventative medicine and value-based medicine are re-emerging.
In the face of these challenges, it is important to remember that, just as digitalisation cannot make the human body simpler, new treatments and expectations do not make it more complex
Simultaneously, the skills healthcare providers need are becoming more scarce in the context of stress and burnout, and remote solutions for patient interaction have not always been established in a way which is interoperable across trusts and departments.
In the face of these challenges, it is important to remember that, just as digitalisation cannot make the human body simpler, new treatments and expectations do not make it more complex.
In other words, while healthcare does not enjoy the luxury, as some industries do, of changing its work and purpose to become more efficient, it can benefit from understanding itself as having a clear, undeniable north star around which everything it does must revolve.
A single source of truth
What all of the emerging and long-standing trends in healthcare share is they are underpinned by data.
When innovative medical imagery is introduced, that is not just a new technology; it is a source of data-driven insight into specific people’s health.
And when programmes to promote preventative medicine are initiated, that is not just a new care pathway to follow when symptoms or warning signs are identified, but a way of looking at a person’s health data over time and predicting their most-likely futures.
This is why digitalisation programmes in healthcare must focus, first of all, on the underlying architecture of recording, storing, sharing, and analysing data – and, indeed, it is why digitalisation can have as big a positive impact in healthcare as it does in other industries.
The vision for data efficiency in healthcare, then, is not about simplifying the problem, but about ensuring that a patient’s data reflects the reality of that patient’s health.
For healthcare workers – both in hospitals and in the community – this means having access to the full picture of a patient’s health, enabling them to make informed decisions without the frustrations of contacting other parts of the healthcare system and waiting for information to sent.
The vision for data efficiency in healthcare is not about simplifying the problem, but about ensuring that a patient’s data reflects the reality of that patient’s health
For patients relying on new digital channels of contact with healthcare professionals, this means knowing that navigating the healthcare system will not entail re-explaining and re-justifying their symptoms and their experiences, as their data moves seamlessly with them.
And, for administrators and policymakers, it means gaining a clearer view of how a healthcare system is operating, where additional resources are most needed, and where better workflows can be established to ensure patients are getting the best outcomes.
Too often, the discussion around data and healthcare has revolved around ideas and principles narrowed from other industries – but a paperless hospital is not the same as a paperless office.
For a truly-modern, digitalised approach to health, we need to make its technology infrastructure as specialised and patient-centric as health providers are.