Mind the gap: Bridging the divide between digital health potential and reality

Should digital health innovators be doing more to ensure healthcare professionals have the knowledge they need to embed changes such as AI?

As the digital health market matures, data sharing increases and medical AI moves from theory to practice, we are in the midst of a healthcare revolution.

But, according to a report from Stanford Medicine, the healthcare professionals (HCPs) tasked with delivering change risk falling through a “transformation gap”.

“Physicians expect new technology to transform patient care in the near term, and they are actively preparing to integrate health data— and the technologies that harness it—into the clinical setting,” says Dr Lloyd B Minor, dean at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in a foreword to the  publication.

“Yet the promise of this future is not assured. Among those surveyed, few feel ‘very prepared’ to implement emerging technologies in clinical practice, especially for innovations that physicians and students say have the greatest potential benefit for patients.

This transformation gap, he added, represented major challenges and opportunities for all healthcare stakeholders.

“If the gap between technology’s transformative potential and HCPs’ ability to utilise it is not closed, innovators risk developing expensive high-tech solutions that never reach wide-scale adoption”

Mind the gap

The institution’s 2020 Health Trends Report: The Rise of the Data-Driven Physician, released last week, presented the results of a survey of more than 700 US physicians, medical students and residents carried out between September and October 2019.

It found that HCPs expected innovations, from electronic health records and data-driven population health approaches to wearable technology outcome measurement, to benefit patients.

Yet while many said they were actively preparing to integrate solutions into clinical practice by undertaking additional training, there are concerns about these knowledge gaps.

Says the report: “A rapidly changing healthcare industry will require physicians to learn many new skills. Our survey data indicates that physicians and medical students recognise this reality.

“Nearly half of all physicians, 47%, and three quarters of medical students, 73%, said that they are currently seeking out additional training or classes to better prepare themselves for innovations in healthcare.”

AI as a case in point

AI has seen rapid growth, both in terms of development and regulatory approval, in recent years. In 2018, the FDA approved 25 algorithms compared to just eight in 2017 and four in 2016.

“The algorithms approved cover a broad spectrum of treatments and diagnoses. A common form consists of imaging algorithms designed to analyse medical scans and images to identify potential cancer and tumours.

“However, current AI applications extend far beyond the domain of medical imaging. Increasingly, AI is being explored as a tool to support clinical workflows,” says the report.

But the survey demonstrated a clear gap between the technology’s transformative potential, and HCPs’ ability to utilise it.

If that gap is not closed, innovators risk developing expensive high-tech solutions that never reach wide-scale adoption, irrespective of how effective they are.

Fortunately, there is an appetite for learning among the medical community which is “keenly aware of the power of AI”.

“As AI makes its way into the clinic, it is sure to have a significant impact on the medical profession,” say the report’s authors.

“Our survey shows that almost 40% of physicians, students, and residents see the potential for AI to transform healthcare in the next five years.”

More than a third, 34%, of doctors, and 13% of medical students said they planned to take additional classes or training that focused on AI to prepare themselves for this.

Joint learning

Despite acceleration in its use, there are still many outstanding questions around the use of AI in healthcare.

Considerations such as the role technology should play in the patient-doctor relationship and how it can best alleviate clinical practice burdens cannot be answered by innovators alone.

The authors say: “Having a basic fluency in AI will be important for clinicians to engage in these critical discussions going forward. Tomorrow’s clinicians not only need to be prepared to use AI, but they must also be ready to shape the technology’s future development.”

Of course, AI wasn’t the only “healthcare trend” clinicians said they wanted to learn more about. Genetic counselling, population health management, clinical genomics, advanced statistics, data science and coding and programming all polled highly as areas of educational need.

“The rise of the data-driven physician is an unprecedented opportunity to transform medicine and improve patient outcomes and we are encouraged to see current and future physicians taking steps to actively prepare for this new era of data and digital health.

“However, as it stands today, few feel sufficiently prepared to bring these new developments into the clinic.”

The report places the upskilling onus on “all healthcare stakeholders”, but these results appear to highlight an important role – and opportunity – for the digital health industry.

Developers rely on clinicians to ensure their solutions tackle unmet need, are feasible in practice and can be embedded into everyday healthcare.

Providing them with the skills they need to play an active role in digital transformation, then, could benefit innovators, clinicians and patients alike.