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Digital Health Isn't a Technological Revolution. It's a Cultural One.


Why healthcare is looking at the digital transformation the wrong way.

digital health revolution,fourth industrial revolution,healthcare cultural shift,healthcare culture,hca news

Credit: U.S. Army

In my last post, I discussed how the fourth industrial revolution—the advancements in physical and digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive technologies, analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT)—will create a digital society. These are, of course, magnificent developments and I would be lying if I were to say that I am not a big fan of IT and its offshoots. However, reading over my post, I realized I might have made it sound as if the digital transformation of healthcare is mainly about these technological advancements. Therefore, now, I would like to challenge that thought by discussing the true definition of digital health.

To Start Off, How Do We Define Digital Health?

Following Wikipedia, digital health is “the convergence of digital and genomic technologies with health, healthcare, living, and society to enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery and make medicines more personalized and precise.”

>> READ: Healthcare, Wearables, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which follows the definition of the Broadband Commission of Sustainable Development, says digital health is “an umbrella term that encompasses all concepts and activities at the intersection of health and information and communications technologies (ICTs). This includes the delivery of health information, using ICTs to improve public health services, and using health information systems to capture, store, manage or transmit information on patient health or health facility activities.”

Following the Oxford Academic Health Science Network, digital health simply is “the use of digital technologies to improve human health.”

The U.K. National Health Service, meanwhile, does not seem to have a clear definition of digital health. But it is clear about what it is doing to advance digital health: “We are developing digital tools and services that connect people to the health information and care they need, when they need them. Our work will help people to better manage their care and relieve pressures on frontline services.”

All these different definitions, as with many others, seem to agree that digital health revolves around the implementation of digital technologies in healthcare and general life, to improve the quality and efficiency of care. This is, of course, true in part. However, it is not the essence of digital health. Digital health is about much more.

What Is Digital Health?

Over the years, many new technologies have entered healthcare. Through the availability of computers, e-health emerged. Telemedicine services appeared when we started connecting the computers to a network. Medicine 2.0 and health 2.0 came with the rise of social media, and mobile phones, now smartphones, led to mobile health, better known as mHealth. This time around, it is not that simple.

Since around 2010, with the fourth revolution running at full speed, disruptive technologies appear at an overwhelming rate. Not only medical professionals, but also patients—who are demanding more insights into and control over their health and well-being—are empowered through these technologies. Simultaneously, we see rising healthcare cost and a global shortage of around 4.3 million healthcare workers, a number that is poised to continue to grow.

>> READ: MDs Are Increasingly Recommending Wearables

All these developments challenge the traditional model of healthcare and its caregiver-patient relationship. The medical profession, one of specific knowledge and experience, always was autonomous and held the control over the patient’s health. Now, patients can take control of their own health and well-being and therewith break down the ivory tower of healthcare. The essence of digital health is therefore not technological. It is about a cultural change in healthcare brought on by a variety of developments.

The correct definition of digital health, then, is this: “the cultural transformation of how disruptive technologies that provide digital and objective data accessible to both caregivers and patients leads to an equal level doctor-patient relationship with shared decision-making and the democratization of care.”

Transforming the Status Quo

Globally, policymakers are struggling to keep up with the fast pace of innovation. The overly regulated healthcare systems make it hard for innovators to integrate their solutions. Care providers struggle with their new role and are reluctant to change, as are the patients, who are still difficult to engage. I argue that each of these challenges, holding back healthcare transformation, are in part due to the current interpretation of digital health.

The vast majority of chief information officers at large healthcare providers find multiple challenges in relation to cultural change, fragmented management of outdated and inadequate processes, and a lack of digital skills by the majority of medical professionals and frontline healthcare workers. This makes getting the digital transformation started the right way a humongous task. It also adds huge pressure to get the changes right in the first place, in the face of aversion to innovation and cultural change. We all know that changes take time and, in this case, most of the time it’s easier to let old ways prevail instead of risking a catastrophic organizational crisis.

For change to happen, you need a reason, unity or coalitions, a vision, and awareness of this vision. After these are established, obstacles can be removed unitedly. Currently, we have many reasons to transform healthcare and seem to think we have found our vision in technology. We should reevaluate, all of us, and look at what really needs to happen. If we can become aware that changing the status quo and implementing digital health is not about more technology, but real change, human change, cultural change, I am certain we can transform the status quo and build a better healthcare system for everyone.

A regular Healthcare Analytics News™ columnist, João Bocas is a wearables expert, a top 100 global digital health influencer, and keynote speaker. He possesses more than 25 years of hands-on experience in professional sport and corporate environments, working with senior management, boards and executive teams. He has worked in healthcare, financial services, media, sporting, and third and public-sector organizations.

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