In the UK they called it a 'major incident'. Hospitals across the country have been so inundated with patients that there was a 'threat to the health of the community' because proper care could not be administered by an overstretched staff. In one January week, more than 105,000 people were admitted into hospitals in England, one of the highest figures on record. That's 20,000 more than the same week last year.
The healthcare system in the UK is not the only one under scrutiny - there have been protests this month in France over reform plans; the Dutch government was criticised at the end of last year over a new healthcare bill; and Obamacare remains a politically sensitive topic in the US.
These are the results of increasing demands on the western healthcare systems, which is still largely oriented towards acute care rather than tailored to chronic diseases that already make up upwards of 70% of the healthcare cost.
New information technologies, such as the Internet of Things and big data analytics, will create a more connected healthcare world, in which the patient experience is no longer fragmented and reliant on face-to-face care. A stronger, more meaningful and personalised engagement with patients will become reality, empowered by mobile devices, wearable monitors and an extended care team including family and friends. A collaboration between technology, care, medicine and individuals, with a focus on continuous monitoring and timely intervention to avoid acute situations.
Diagnoses can be made faster and more accurately using big data, while treatment plans will be developed jointly with the patient and monitoring takes place without the need for long queues or travel to and from hospital. By using secure cloud-based technology, we can store and analyse incredibly detailed amounts of big data made possible by the IoT and new technologies like digital pathology and genome sequencing. With the right information technology developed we can scale real-time monitoring capabilities to have an integrated care team look at hundreds of different people at different locations at the same time, zooming in on those patients requiring support.
Data is, of course, a crucial element of new care models, seamlessly connecting clinicians, care teams and patients. Not just electronic medical records, but the full spectrum of health data garnered across the health continuum - from healthy living, prevention and diagnosis, to recovery, treatment and home care - such as information on vital signs and physical and mental well-being. This can be done through wearable technology, apps or devices that a patient is using within the hospital, as well as data from imaging systems, medical records and patient monitors. We're increasingly seeing examples of connectivity transforming how healthcare is delivered and coordinated.
The amount of personal health data generated and tracked is exploding and increasingly used for advanced analytics. The potential is to create a world where patients and caregivers stay connected to each other, not just in the hospital. Clinicians can collaborate more effectively and customise treatment plans for the specific needs of the patients, drawing actionable insights from a multitude of sources. They will have an unprecedented depth of understanding of their patients.
Currently, healthcare providers have trouble accessing and utilising medical data in an efficient way. Those who work in public health know there is a huge amount of waste - more than $750 billion annually in the US alone. But by personalising healthcare and empowering providers with the technological tools to manage information from multiple sources, we can move from a system which provides sick care to one which personalises health care, supporting people across the health continuum from prevention, to diagnosis, treatment, recovery and wellness.
These are the liberating promises of the digital age that other consumer industries are already delivering on. Complex algorithms attuned to patients' vital signs and profiles can identify a serious situation and ensure timely intervention so that for instance a heart attack can be avoided rather than dealt with. Your elderly parents can still live at home together and go out safely because you know if they would fall down or there is an onset of health deterioration, caregivers will be alerted to come and help immediately. Over 50% of the patients don't comply with their treatment plan. A more holistic, digital approach can ensure patients take their medicine on time, check their vital signs and are conscious about food, alcohol and exercise. Devices in the kitchen can provide nutritional advice; wearable technology can check the heart, breathing and record sensitive data, and tablet video apps link to doctors for instant check-ups. All of this is designed to prevent acute problems, to give people the information they need to look after their own health and to get early warnings so that medical professionals can better care for their patients and choose the optimum moment for intervention.
Crossing fingers in the hope that budgets and system efficacy will improve is not an option. The system as it stands offers patients' limited opportunities for self-management and resources are stretched evermore thinly. Healthcare systems need to be more patient-centric, embrace telehealth and digital technologies. Fear of radical realignment should be replaced by an enthusiasm for it. It needs leadership from the top and a new sense of collaboration. These kinds of changes can't be made in isolation; they require strong, multi-skilled, dynamic partnerships to make a true transition into a digitally-enabled healthier world. One where sophisticated analytic solutions and advanced information technology strengthen society by offering personalised healthcare plans designed to keep people out of hospital.