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Unlocking the digital front door to healthcare

Sumit Sharma and Dr Anurag Agrawal
Sumit Sharma and Dr Anurag Agrawal • 6 min read
Unlocking the digital front door to healthcare
Strong winds of change are reshaping the healthcare industry.
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Strong winds of change are reshaping the healthcare industry. Patients are taking on a greater role in their own health and demanding better experiences. Clinicians are increasing their focus on measuring outcomes and using this data to decide treatment protocols. New technologies like digital and AI are enabling new models of care. Traditionally resistant to change, the age-old healthcare industry faces a pressing need to reinvent itself through a holistic adoption of digital tools and technologies.

Healthcare institutions in Southeast Asia that have relied on the strength of their reputation and physical assets are waking up to this new reality. Challenged by the growing penetration of healthtech players like Alodokter, Halodoc, DoctorOnCall and Medifi, many providers are making efforts to harness the power of digital. Parkway Hospital Singapore has introduced a DigiHealth app to support digital patient journeys. In Malaysia, Gleneagles Hospital has adopted its own eHealth platform. Thailand’s Bangkok Dusit Medical Services also recently introduced digital health services.

While these are encouraging first steps, a more comprehensive “cure” is required if the industry is to realise the full value from digital technologies. The time has come to unlock the digital front door to healthcare.

A digital prescription for healthcare

In a survey undertaken by Boston Consulting Group last year, we revealed healthcare companies (pharmaceuticals, medtech and providers) are among the least digitally mature across industries. Healthcare providers are starkly divided between leading “digital champions” and underperforming “digital laggards”.

What separates the champions and laggards? Our research indicates that digital champions keep patients at the centre of their digital transformation and digitise the patient journey end-to-end. This enables them to use patient data to predict the need for interventions, provide care outside existing facilities, and improve the efficiency of clinical visits through online scheduling and remote services.

This patient-centric view translates into competitive advantage for digital champions in three key areas: first, extended reach allowing hospitals to tap into revenues across the entire patient journey and outside their original catchment; second, enhancing medical outcomes and reducing costs; and third, improving the efficiency of their staff and facilities, for example, medical staff at digital laggards spend 34% of their time on administrative work — nearly twice that of the champions.

Succeeding in digital health transformation

Given the complexity of the healthcare industry, the challenges to succeeding in a digital transformation are many. Our experience of supporting healthcare providers highlights five key imperatives. Most digital initiatives suffer from a lack of focus on consumer needs. Consumers today want solutions that analogue healthcare cannot deliver. They want care, which is convenient, high-quality, affordable, and accessible from anywhere.

Most healthcare systems do not design digital tools to meet these needs. It is important to keep the patient at the centre of the digital transformation. In this context, a human-centred design approach that targets consumer needs, is agile and iterative, and feeds back consumer inputs early in the development process, is an important cornerstone to success. Following this approach can ensure a user-friendly solution that is better equipped to meet true consumer needs.

The value of digital health solutions is difficult to measure. Digital health solutions tend to deliver value in many ways which are often difficult to quantify — longerterm retention of patients, higher engagement and better outcomes. This makes it hard to secure investments for ambitious digital solutions. As a result, providers tend to develop cheaper, point solutions, addressing a particular consumer pain point. Patients, in turn, get overwhelmed by an unsatisfying, disconnected healthcare ecosystem they are likely to abandon.

See also: Using tech to deliver quality and affordable healthcare in Asia

The solution lies in identifying innovative ways to pin down the value of multifaceted technologies. One approach adopted by providers is to identify strategic objectives (such as increased patient satisfaction and engagement) and then quantify the value of fulfilling these objectives (by estimating, for example, how much revenue could be added through higher patient retention). Another approach is to consider the lifetime value of digital solutions, rather than evaluating them against shortterm financial metrics. A third approach is to view digital solutions as enablers towards broader organisational strategies and not evaluate returns on these solutions alone.

Clinicians are sceptical of solutions that affect their workflow. Most digital health innovations have a significant impact on care delivery workflows. Doctors are inherently averse to adopting new software that reduces face-time with patients and adds to administrative burden. Hospital network CEOs need to understand that adopting digital to focus on the consumer affects the entire organisation, including clinicians, and thus requires a strong mandate from the leadership. Organisations should fund projects as a CEO initiative and establish working groups at the operating level that meet frequently to tackle problems. In addition, digital health programmes should ensure early involvement of physician champions and key opinion leaders to support the top-down mandate with bottom-up change management.

Healthcare IT and electronic record systems are often non-existent or antiquated. In addition, these systems are often disconnected and not governed by universal standards. Modernisation of IT infrastructure takes time and requires resources. The solution is potentially twofold. Firstly, there is a need to team up with the right feature and integration vendors. A good team of vendors could help manage — or at least avoid amplifying — the chaos of multiple health record and API data sources. Secondly, there is a need to nurture technology and digital foundations through smart investments into building the technology stack.

The slow pace of healthcare innovation is at odds with agile development ideology. Healthcare providers tend to be conservative in the adoption of technology and prefer to stick with the “tried-andtested” rather than risk a lapse in patient care. This runs counter to the “fail fast, fail often” spirit of agile development methodologies. When providers develop software, they often end up behind the curve, creating disappointing experiences for consumers who have become used to the superlative experiences of e-commerce and social media.

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Progress will require healthcare leaders to step outside their comfort zone and trust their technology experts and partners to guide them through productive risktaking. CEO ownership of the digital agenda, setting up the organisation for fast learning, pilots with real test patients, and the implementation of robust procedural safety nets can allow health systems to embrace agile methodologies without putting patient safety at risk.

With the right strategy, digital transformation provides a pathway to unlock immense value for patients, clinicians and healthcare providers. As with any treatment pathway, the earlier the intervention is made, the more positive the outcome will be for the organisation.

Sumit Sharma is SEA leader for healthcare, managing director and partner, at Boston Consulting Group. Dr Anurag Agrawal is partner and associate director at Boston Consulting Group.

Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore

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