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Why the Future of Digital Health Needs New Thinking

Dr Hong Fung, Chief Executive Officer of the CUHK Medical Centre in Hong Kong shares insights on a new approach for a changing world.

To understand how health systems must evolve, we must first assess the critical motivations behind the rapid transformation of digital health trends. When change is the only constant, it becomes even more important to step back and ask: what are we really trying to achieve? As we continue to shape future medical innovations, providing value to patients ought to be the first and most important goal.

The future of digital health, from a broader perspective, is more than evaluating data and applying predictive algorithms. While near-term, stakeholders in the health system, are considering how the deployment of digital solutions can enable cost and resource efficiencies, the long-term approach needs to improve the patient experience throughout the continuum of care.

How can we ensure that the digital tools at our disposal improve health outcomes as well as the performance of our healthcare services? 


In our bid to shape future medical innovations, priority should remain firmly on providing value to patients

1. Restricted Movement, Unrestricted Thinking

When COVID-19 first struck Hong Kong, there was a strong impetus from the government to provide telemedicine as an alternative for patients. Due to movement restrictions, it soon became apparent that administering medicines to patients was a hurdle. We couldn’t rely on courier services, as patients had to be informed by a doctor or pharmacist about the safe and prescribed use of medication. 

To overcome this challenge, tele-pharmacy services were launched at no additional cost to patients. And, this could be done without the need to hire additional pharmacists to meet this unprecedented demand.

The quick pivot to digital health to support patient needs, as this and many similar examples show, can be done in an agile manner without compromising safety. This has begun in many diagnostic labs as a means for sample collection and results sharing, and I foresee this trend continuing to  influence the future of digital health.

2. Overcoming Bureaucratic Hurdles

Traditionally, health policies served as the guardrails to ensure treatments and diagnostic tools were safe for human use. With the availability of ground-breaking medical technologies and devices, more non-traditional digital tools are entering the healthcare space.

Artificial intelligence (AI), for one, is a powerful tool with phenomenal capabilities to synthesize the magnitude of data. To effectively use and regulate AI, we need to determine what elements to pilot and test, in order to decide which areas to regulate.

Without this, we maintain an overtly cautious approach without taking a comprehensive view of the benefits AI technologies can bring to patient care.

In Hong Kong, there are start-ups who are developing fascinating technological solutions along these lines. But many of them are finding it hard to integrate these solutions into the mainstream care delivery system. The natural tendency of public healthcare organisations to be risk-averse, especially from a monetary standpoint, is not helping the situation either. 

This is where, prioritising the ways in which legislations and governance can regulate digital health, can benefit the health system as a whole.  

3. Making a Difference in Diagnosis

AI and machine learning have been making significant inroads in diagnostics as well. From recognising complex patterns in diagnostic imaging data to reducing human error, the potential of digital tools is immense.

This leap ahead in diagnostics accuracy and efficiency will continue to bring greater value to patients. But as with any tech innovation, it needs to be supported by open minds. It may take some time before people realise the huge role which AI plays in diagnostics and the ways it is quietly transforming the future of digital health. 


One of the existing digital health trends is the use of the Electronic Health Record Sharing System as piloted by the Hong Kong government

4. Incentivising Collaboration

Above all, there is an urgent call for health authorities and personnel to adopt a more open, inclusive and flexible mindset. In March 2016, the Hong Kong government introduced the Electronic Health Record Sharing System1 (eHRSS) to enable healthcare providers in both public and private sectors to share patients’ health records, in a bid to enhance continuity of healthcare services.

While it is undoubtedly a positive initiative in our bid to better understand and apply digital health trends, the adoption rate from the private sector remains relatively muted due to a lack of financial incentives. Another problem that emerged was that patient medical records were often not uploaded to this communal platform.

There is no one way to address such concerns but engaging in tripartite dialogue with government authorities can help public and private sector care providers to ensure patients benefit regardless of where they seek care.

5. Retaining a Patient Focus Amidst Transformation

The world went through seismic upheavals in 2019 and 2020. In truth, we can’t predict if or when a health crisis will hit, and what it will be like. Lightning rarely strikes the same place twice, after all.

As we look ahead to become resilient, we must evaluate the broader mission behind understanding and applying digital health trends — and how we can leverage technology to close the gap across socio-economic groups.

Times and technology may change, but for the healthcare professional the aim is always the same: a burning passion to improve patient outcomes. 

References

1Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. Electronic health record sharing system. Retrieved from https://www.legco.gov.hk/research-publications/english/essentials-1718ise09-electronic-health-record-sharing-system.htm

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