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The future of healthcare: Bringing patient data to life

The healthcare industry seems poised to ride the digital wave – with almost three quarters of health executives saying they’re investing in technologies like artificial intelligence and the internet of things. But are they truly on board with the digital revolution? We ask Vaughn Kauffman, head of PwC’s Health Services and New Entrants Advisory, what the future of health looks like.

What do you think is driving the greatest change in healthcare at the moment?

Organisations are looking for opportunities to capture and derive meaningful insights from data in order to improve their business models. Sensors are constantly becoming smaller, cheaper and more accurate. Nearly everyone has a connected supercomputer in their pocket which can collect real-time data.

Look no further than the airline industry as an example of the volume of data that can be created as a result of the internet of things (IoT). One flight of a 787 Dreamliner airplane can generate almost a half of terabyte of data from all the sensors on board, in the engine, in landing gear, etc. Think about that in the context of the data that’s currently generated in healthcare.

Between electronic medical records, digitised diagnostics, and wearable medical devices, the average person will leave a trail of more than one million gigabytes of health-related data in their lifetime. Healthcare is still in its infancy when it comes to taking advantage of connected devices and using that information to improve the quality, access and cost of care to patients.

Data, and the insights learned from that data, will continue to change the ways that patients interact with the healthcare ecosystem; providing consumers with care experiences that are tailored, personalised and on-demand.

With such a focus on data, what is the impact facing healthcare providers?

Traditional players are creating data warehouses and implementing advanced analytics. For example, in the US, the proportion of hospitals with an electronic health record system has grown eight-fold in recent years, from 9% in 2008 to now being almost universal.

Digital health wearables and apps are commonplace and are becoming an important part of an organisation’s strategy. For example, private health insurers have integrated wearables into their solution offerings, with incentives for their beneficiaries to use them.

The proliferation of data does come with some challenges. Sensitive health data is susceptible to cyber attacks and breaches. Health records are an attractive target for criminals due to the breadth and depth of their data, and healthcare organisations’ relatively low focus on security. The value of a partial electronic health record on the black market is US$50 compared with US$1 for a stolen Social Security number or credit card.

You’ve previously said that that new technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, the IoT and augmented reality are driving the future of healthcare. Will hospitals and traditional healthcare providers be able to keep up with these? Or will they need to partner or outsource?

In PwC’s most recent Global Digital IQ Survey we asked business leaders which emerging technologies they plan to invest in over the next three years: 74% of healthcare executives said artificial intelligence, 70% said the internet of things, and a distant third was robotics, cited by just 34%.

Traditional healthcare players and providers need to have a forward-thinking strategy for implementing these technologies to drive innovation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the new innovations and the hype, but most of these technologies are still some years away from being fully developed.

Take artificial intelligence, for example. Its viability and adoption will depend on a number of factors, including regulatory environment, sentiment towards its use and more. Certain AI use cases in health are fast approaching feasibility and already have some use in fraud detection, insight and risk analytics. However, other use cases such as medical image diagnosis and virtual assistants may be further down the road.

Regardless of how these technologies roll out, there are several things that traditional healthcare organisations should be doing to prepare, including building an infrastructure for digital readiness, and hiring talent with backgrounds in data science.

In the short term, traditional players should also consider partnering with new technology companies to co-develop these products and engage in an open dialogue with regulators to stay at the forefront of innovation.

There’s a lot of talk of the impact of new entrants to the health ecosystem, but what effect will these new entrants and technologies have on the patient experience?

A huge one.

Nearly every industry has evolved to use technology to improve engagement with consumers and drive growth, yet healthcare has been slower to adopt than most. Retail is the poster child for this. Sales have continually declined and bricks-and-mortar stores are closing as they lose market share to e-commerce. Retailers are now shifting to omnichannel experiences to engage consumers – that is, they offer a seamless relationship through both online and offline channels. This is how the patient experience will evolve.

Much like retail, healthcare will no longer be a square-footage game any more, due to digital technology and new entrants. A combination of reinventing physical facilities and virtual care models will change care access points and make healthcare more convenient and personalised.

What do you think the healthcare experience will look like for patients in five or ten years?

It will likely be almost indistinguishable from any other sector, such as retail, in terms of convenience. The healthcare system will become further disintermediated and increasingly plug-and-play, with emerging players from other sectors focusing on different parts of the healthcare value chain.

Imagine you’re a pre-diabetic patient and your physician prescribes a regimen of diet and exercise to minimise risk. They will ‘prescribe’ a fitness tracker (covered by your insurance) and a meal delivery service which comes three times a week to help maintain your diet.

The next step will be even further personalised medicine using genomics, which is medical care based on the individual’s genetic makeup. The price of genomic sequencing is similar to that of an MRI. As it becomes even cheaper and more widespread, advanced analytics will provide more insights.

For example, it will offer the ability to tell you in real time what exercises are best suited for your genetic profile or what foods and medicines are the healthiest for your body. Then, doctors will be able to put that into a scientific computational model to demonstrate what your future health will look like based on their prescribed health regimen.

A little further down the road, the precision of care will continue to improve because of things like regenerative medicine and biologically 3D-printed bone and ligament replacements. Simulation modeling also provides a major opportunity – the same data used to alert you to real-time issues can be used to simulate a person’s health well into the future, giving the patient a concrete reason to modify behaviours or follow particular advice.

For more information on the healthcare landscape download the PwC report New Health: A vision for sustainability.