In this article, Joseph Saba shares his views on the issues impacting the current healthcare ecosystem, the need to build healthcare access amongst vulnerable communities and how digital tools can act as enablers to ensure optimum medical benefits.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light a widening gap outside health facilities in Asia and worldwide. As healthcare facilities face unprecedented challenges to accommodate the surge of COVID-19 patients, patients with chronic diseases and treatments face difficulties in continuing their treatments. The majority of chronic disease patients are also at higher risk of infection, leading to many avoiding frequent hospital visits. Most health systems don’t have the infrastructure, the network and the capacity to reach patients when they leave the hospital. This is needed to better follow the patient throughout their treatment journey. In the context of the pandemic, it is crucial in order to reach them for specific prevention of Covid-19. Without this gap filled, it will continue resulting in more and more suboptimal health outcomes for patients.
In the field of access to healthcare, this gap has become increasingly problematic. As chronic diseases rates increase in Asia and around the world, patients are being prescribed long-term medications that often require close monitoring and follow-up. However, the measures to track a patient’s progress once they leave the hospital are limited to none.
This is because healthcare institutions and facilities are constrained by their capacity. While interventions led by physicians and pharmacists have demonstrated some effectiveness in improving medication adherence, it is no secret that healthcare professionals are already constantly overworked – especially in public health institutions. Most countries in Asia have an uneven distribution between patients and physicians. With the pandemic, this situation has worsened.
As a result, as patients face potential side effects or other issues, many stop taking their chronic disease treatment as prescribed, minimising the potential benefit of the medication.
Over the last decade, digital solutions, like telehealth medication tracking apps and others, have been widely touted as the solution to this gap. While there is no denying that digital tools and platforms can help complement overburdened health systems and enable closer follow-up, it is important that we look at these tools as enablers and not as the solution itself. The key is building digital health tools that focus on the patient, rather than the medication box.
The role of digital health tools in healthcare access
With the second wave of Covid-19 and new variants causing cases to rise worldwide, countries must act quickly on vaccinations. While many countries have managed to secure availability of the vaccine, the issue of ensuring access to the vaccine remains - that is, how do we reach the people to get them vaccinated? It is manageable to vaccinate healthcare workers and the elderly in care homes but reaching the rest of the population is not as straightforward. A portion of the population will show up proactively, but this is not sufficient when the ultimate goal is to reach most or all of the population. This concept is just as relevant for chronic disease treatments as it is for vaccinations.
That's where digital platforms and proper follow up of patients outside the hospital play a significant role: when implemented, we can reach out quickly and efficiently to vulnerable patients and we can be better prepared to react quickly to other future outbreaks.
In my organisation, we specialise in access to medicines with a focus on chronic treatments. Using personalised and secure modern technologies, we have built the systems to reach and follow up with patients enrolled in our patient support programs when they leave the health facility to ensure that they are compliant with their treatment. We’ve also built digital tools that enable physicians to refer a patient to an access program and to track their patients’ progress remotely, and pharmacists to track product supply. These tools can be adapted for vaccinations to serve a similar purpose.
Such digitalisation can streamline operations and optimise resources, but they wouldn’t work as efficiently, or as effectively, if they were a standalone solution. This is because without the human factor, any information added to the platform by the patient would begin and end with the patient. The human factor behind a digital platform plays a significant role in maximising health benefits by proactively triggering a response based on data entered.
Using these tools can save considerable time and costs, enabling health facilities to improve their capacity and better support patients. By making it more efficient, the cost-saving can in time improve patient access at scale, leading to overall maximised health outcomes.
Healthcare access is a complex subject that requires a multi-layered approach. To improve accessibility by complementing and even enhancing physical systems, digital patient access solutions can play an instrumental role. It enables healthcare providers to reach the patients outside the confines of health institutions and helps them make more strategic, informed decisions to provide better-quality care.
The new normal is now demanding new holistic solutions. Covid-19 won't be the last pandemic and it is time to be prepared. The time is now ripe for the healthcare industry to reinvent itself and step fully into a digital future that truly focuses on the patient wherever they are.