Applying digital health to systemic healthcare challenges

Views & Analysis
Applying digital health to systemic healthcare challenges

The de-prioritisation of face-to-face interactions between patients and healthcare professionals in the wake of COVID-19's current emergency has motivated a lot of changes in healthcare systems.

The limitations that lockdowns have placed on face-to-face interaction have exposed the relatively analogue system that is healthcare, challenging systems to make more effective use of technology.

Many have stepped up to respond, providing care in a virtual setting now that going to the doctor and sitting in the waiting room is often not an option.

However, there is also significant demand for healthcare interactions that absolutely have to be face-to-face but aren’t possible in the current climate, as essential health interventions take precedence over those deemed ‘non-essential’. The long-term implications of delaying care management from, for example, in-clinic interventions for cardiac rehabilitation programmes is as yet unknown.

These two sides to the de-prioritisation of face-to-face healthcare interactions present society’s healthcare infrastructure with some major challenges, but it’s also an opportunity to question behaviours that have been taken for granted – and that’s where digital health solutions comes in.

“Telehealth is not a homogeneous tool and requires careful thought about how to ensure the experience is a smooth one for patients and providers”

Telehealth adoption

COVID-19 has forced healthcare systems to overcome many of the hurdles to adoption that might have previously seemed insurmountable and telehealth is a real poster child for this. Although the adoption hurdle has always been bigger for telehealth, the current situation has forced healthcare systems to adapt and adopt in order to continue to care for patients that either have to stay at home or are unwilling to seek in-person attention. These hurdles only have to be faced once. Once healthcare systems enter the avenue of adoption for telehealth and see what it can offer, there’s no way back from that.

By ‘telehealth’, I don’t just mean a Zoom call with a doctor, it’s much more than that and can include minimising the need for a person to be physically present at a certain place for every part of the care process. Naturally, this presents some challenges for providers.

Telehealth is not a homogeneous tool and requires careful thought about how to ensure the experience is a smooth one for patients and providers. Moreover, fragmented provider networks will probably be unable to adapt to the speed of digitalisation and the implications of this could be structural changes to healthcare systems to ensure their economic viability, including the consolidation of clinics. But what we’re seeing is that by digitalising an analogue experience we can create an experience that is even better than it was before.

Digital health and sustainability

Consequently, as online services take a greater hold across all areas of our socially-distanced lives the convenience that they provide is unlikely to be easily given up. But for digital health to be sustainable beyond COVID-19’s emergency phase, payers need to be assessing and endorsing effective technologies now so that they can be built into healthcare systems’ long-term future plans. This means building on the ongoing drive for remote monitoring systems in, for example, diabetes, where we’ve seen how important it is to create experiences that can be integrated into everyday life in a comfortable way. People want to be able to understand where they are in their health journey and then to manage their diabetes and course-correct it along the way.

In addition to remote monitoring, another big area of opportunity can be seen with the rise of disease management technologies and digital therapeutics, which are providing a new avenue for care that requires less face-to-face interactions or in-clinic visits. We've seen a lot of digital health companies coming up in these two areas that offer unique value propositions.

However digital health tools are integrated into patient care, the key is creating a more sustainable healthcare system that can react to acute care needs, while also reinforcing the importance of more ‘longitudinal’ care and the prevention and reduction of risk factors.

Integrated care as an approach to health

I feel that ‘patient’ is a little bit of a harsh way to label somebody who feels sick. With integrated care we want to understand how that person feels throughout their journey in life and how they can optimise their health. Integrated care brings together whatever conditions a person has at a particular point in time, and works to decrease their progression, but it also encompasses conditions a person does not yet have and looks at how to prevent those. It’s a model that works to bring together the dislocated spectrum of services within the current healthcare system and take a larger view of them. All of the illnesses that we have tend to be somehow connected, so we look at the person as a ‘multi-morbid’ patient and then ask how we can help optimise their health.

As all aspects of digital health are brought together in this way, it’s really important to put people at the centre of their health with an integrated care approach to health. This year’s G4A challenges follow a similar path to Bayer’s approach to integrated care by being laser-focused on a select number of health challenges. They are areas where we're very serious about making a big change and having the highest speed towards execution.

Companies like Livongo, Omada, Lark, Gnome, Noom and OneDrop have set the standard to follow here in helping people manage metabolic disorders or cardiovascular risk factors in a way that’s easy for people to understand. We are determined to move ahead with this and are always actively searching for additional partners who can help us to become faster at creating and bringing solutions to people with healthcare needs. As part of this we're continuously looking at data and how it can help empower patients to take care of their own health and help the system to deliver better-coordinated care. Going and visiting your cardiologist should not only be about your heart, it should also be about your diet, exercise routine and stress management techniques. That’s the sort of holistic picture of care, in areas like cardiometabolic conditions, approaches for healthy women or oncology, that we want to incentivise doctors to provide and assist patients to follow.

The key to integrated care is looking at the person and not simplifying them into a single disease with one, narrow set of needs. This year we welcome applications from companies that are taking an expansive, integrated approach to healthcare.


About the author

Dr Javier Garcia Palacios

Vice president, head of integrated care ventures, Bayer Pharmaceuticals

A chemical engineer by education, Javier spent the first seven years of his career taking several positions in chemical companies such as BASF and Covestro. After several R&D leadership positions, he joined the marketing team to develop new businesses for high performance materials, such as transforming wound care materials into wearables. This has brought him closer to healthcare, and in 2015 he joined Bayer to lead its very first Digital Health Incubator, which became instrumental to Bayer’s digital transformation across Bayer’s health businesses and became a part of the umbrella brand of Bayer G4A. In 2020, Javier now leads the Integrated Care department in addition to G4A within Bayer’s Pharmaceutical division, which focuses on addressing unmet patient needs in a holistic manner and providing systemic solutions that reduce healthcare inefficiencies.

9 July, 2020