Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage
Expert Contributor

An Interconnected Healthcare Continuum Drives Better Care

By Sandra Sánchez | Mon, 10/25/2021 - 12:15

We can all acknowledge that digital technologies are firmly embedded in our lives – digitalization and the Internet of Things (IoT) are becoming a democratized, and rapidly trending toward a demonetized, reality; it is easier than ever before to connect devices, data-generating appliances, machines, and even complete industries to the internet. As a result, we are also creating vast amounts of data, faster and more detailed than ever before.

The impact of this trend in healthcare, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is propelling the sector to move outside the hospital, and into our homes and everyday lives. All the data generated as a result, has served to improve patient care, whether for the diagnosis, monitoring or treatment of diseases or medical conditions. It has even been used to obtain medical records online, either from equipment or mobile devices. However, despite the growing use of technology in this field, it has been done in silos and with limited to no interconnectedness beyond an institution or a healthcare provider. This status quo has led to fragmented and lower quality patient care.
How can this tech-revolution help address some of the biggest challenges we are facing in healthcare?

Effectively addressing the needs of a growing, aging world population where chronic diseases are on the rise, costs are spiraling out of control and not necessarily correlating with higher quality care, better outcomes or expanded access, is simply unsustainable.

If we are to ensure that healthcare remains affordable and widely available for future generations, we need to radically rethink how we provide and manage it – in collaboration with key health system partners – and apply the technology that can help achieve these changes.

Nonetheless, it’s not all bad. There are many positive indicators and shifts that demonstrate there is a solid base to build from – health-conscious consumers are already comfortable using apps to track and take more control of their personal health, while governments and institutions are looking for ways to deliver better and more affordable healthcare beyond the hospital walls. They want to prevent diseases by encouraging healthy living and supporting people with chronic diseases at home. Healthcare professionals are seeking ways to cooperate more effectively and deliver first-time-right diagnoses and targeted treatments.

With these trends, alongside the digital and big data-tech revolution, we can start to build the path toward achieving what was previously unthinkable: to improve patient outcomes and lower healthcare costs, while delivering personalized care to everyone.

The evolution of healthcare, then, suggests building a community that is based on collaboration instead of competition and creating a truly interconnected healthcare system; one that streamlines operations, while improving the patient experience and simplifying care. It’s an approach that is ultimately based around using integration to deliver patient-centered care that can truly impact patient outcomes that matter. Creating an interconnected health continuum where the healthcare and consumer worlds integrate to put patients at the heart of a holistic system that monitors them continuously, provides answers and has a positive impact on their health – and that of the institutions – at every stage of life.

Interconnected healthcare encompasses terms such as wireless, digital, electronic, mobile, and telehealth and refers to a conceptual model for health management where devices, machines/medical equipment, services, or interventions are designed around the patient's needs and health-related data is shared in such a way that the patient can receive care in the most proactive and efficient manner possible. All stakeholders in the process are “connected” by means of timely sharing and presentation of accurate and pertinent information regarding patient status through smarter use of data, devices, communication platforms and people.

Strategic initiatives at the forefront of this evolution are Population Health Management (PHM) and Value-Based Care payment models (VBC), which are already leveraging interconnected technologies, devices, and standardization of metrics and outcomes, with a focus on reducing costs through prevention, care coordination, regular check-ups, medication adherence and improved management of chronic conditions. These initiatives are serving as cornerstones to building a true interconnected health system.

The integration, alignment, and standardization of technology, metrics, health outcomes, incentives and treatment protocols among the connected community will in turn derive benefits, including facilitating communication between healthcare providers, ensuring timely care or even prevention, guaranteeing patient safety, follow-up, and progress reporting, while promoting a standard in the quality of care, in adherence to treatments and better health outcomes, as well as optimized and efficient access.

The new reality for healthcare organizations requires harnessing the power of innovation and technologically integrated solutions. Driving inefficiencies out of the system while gathering data and information can help to sustain business value while helping keep patients as healthy as possible. Technology can help to form long-term approaches that can support the entire system, from industry suppliers to healthcare providers to administrators to patients to insurers or payers, while also remaining responsive to near-term cost pressures.

Some of the benefits of an interconnected healthcare system, ensuring the alignment of metrics and outcomes, include:

  • Better patient experience
  • Reduced errors
  • Improved patient safety
  • Improved disease management and outcomes 
  • Decreased costs
  • Expanded care access
  • Electronic patient records
  • Potential for homecare, leveraging M2M capabilities (machine-to-machine)

This vision of an interconnected health continuum demands a behavioral change from the industry and all players. It demands that we tear up the old rules about how businesses work and how healthcare is approached.

Healthcare organizations must decide if they are fully prepared to make the complete transition from the current siloed model of care delivery to a more sophisticated Population Health Management model where an integrated information system is achieved, moving from a reactive, late, siloed, and resource “wasteful” healthcare to a more productive, proactive, preventive, efficient, patient-centered, and interconnected healthcare: a single point-of-contact solution for bidirectional information exchange and communications between hospital information systems, clinical informatics solutions and medical devices.

Hospitals will need to leverage existing systems and standards and connect to a health information exchange (HIE) infrastructure to achieve interconnected care delivery. This journey involves all members of the healthcare ecosystem – suppliers, payers, providers, physicians, patients, pharmacies, and caregivers – and all must be on the same page and aligned.

We must look beyond healthcare to learn from other industries. We need to radically rethink how we partner and how we share risk. We need to move from transactional relationships to relationships where we all work together as part of an ecosystem. It’s about co-creation with startups, with universities, with government, with other large companies, and with patients and customers. With this shared responsibility to enable value-based healthcare comes a shared opportunity to shape the future of our world.

Finally, as with any new technology or overhauling of a system, an interconnected healthcare continuum brings many potential benefits and promises – but it also brings potential concerns and challenges. These challenges include funding, data privacy, interoperability standards (accounting for nonmedical and nonclinical liabilities), cybersecurity, and alternative disruptive innovations that are emerging outside the healthcare industry, which are leading to unhealthy competition. Nevertheless, to avoid a standoff, these challenges should not be considered as roadblocks. Instead, they should be seen as road signs, indicating potential road hazards that prompt us to drive forward with caution and determination toward success.

A special word of caution on data privacy: We need to ensure the privacy and security of healthcare data, but at the same time enable it to be shared among the right people and used to build new solutions. Health data is sensitive and if it’s shared inappropriately or misused, it has the potential to damage people’s privacy. Ensuring hospitals, and the entire system, have secure and manageable infrastructure is essential in the healthcare sector.

In summary, the game-changing developments of technology and IoT have the potential to really revolutionize healthcare in a positive way. It is expected that the massive deployment of personalized connected health systems and services will have a significant impact in our lives as citizens, or patients or consumers. Positively, it will help governments to reduce healthcare costs and improve quality of life and increase convenience and accessibility for patients.

Moreover, interconnectedness will enable a more fulsome vision that will result in exponentially greater capacity for understanding, innovation, and progress and the recognition that we are, indeed, stronger together, and that the free flow of information and ideas remains the greatest organizational catalyst to improving healthcare systems and patient outcomes as tracking and traceability can be enabled.

Therefore, not only is prevention better than any cure, but integrated, digital, connected healthcare systems will give millions more people the opportunity to live healthy lives, with better prevention, quicker diagnoses, shorter hospital stays, better outcomes, longer independent living, and lower healthcare costs. The current modus operandi must be shifted from disease care to healthcare via the exploitation of the interconnected health paradigm and continuum.

Photo by:   Sandra Sanchez