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Rehumanising healthcare through technology

Tech companies internationally are offering innovative ways to access niche healthcare services that promise to ease patients’ fears about the use of technology over humans

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In an industry as inherently personable and sincere as healthcare, the idea of technological intervention can often be met with scepticism or fear by patients.

Most people in need of treatment are looking for more of a calming human touch. But there are tech companies looking to bridge the two sides by introducing applications and innovations that personalise – or, more aptly, rehumanise – the delivery of healthcare.

For those in need of regular care – in any guise –- many are often left in the dark or in danger because of long waiting periods and the sheer volume of those in need. Digital tools have rarely been used effectively by healthcare institutions to mitigate the strains.

In the UK, for example, health secretary Matt Hancock hopes to stimulate the creation of new tools and apps that can provide services for and with the NHS. But tech companies in other countries are already taking a lead.

Small and slow tweaks to large, incumbent, bureaucratic health organisations will not change the status quo any time soon, and a sizable gap has been left for independent organisations to address the issue and re-bridge the gap between carers and patients across critical niche areas.

“The key message in healthcare is that to change anything, you have to be willing to change everything,” says Nick Desai, CEO and co-founder of Heal, a US company that has targeted a national niche rather than a microservice niche.

In America, healthcare is broken, but with Heal, we’re ready to make a huge, positive impact on the industry, to fix major issues for patients and doctors,” he says. “We feel this is best done by reinventing primary care to be delivered as it was in the past – when your family doctor came to you.”

The company’s digital portal for the provision of doctor house calls has reduced the waiting time for patients from an average of 24 days to two hours since its inception – not only providing speedier care for patients, but alleviating pressures from hospitals simultaneously. More than 110,000 doctor house calls and as much as $68m has been saved in healthcare costs as a result.

Despite the pitfalls and distractions new technology and digital devices bring, they are beautiful tools for democratisation; making wellness information, practices and insights available to everyone
David Brudö, Remente

Another sub-sector benefiting from the rise of independent technology facilitators is mental health, epitomised by Swedish firm Remente. When going through his own health struggles, CEO and co-founder David Brudö found that although professional help was available, there was not a resource solely dedicated to preventative measures and to maintaining consistent care.

“Despite some improvements in recent years, services remain inconsistent and overstretched, and this needs to change,” he says.

“This is where preventive solutions play an important role, with the potential to educate people on how to manage their mental wellbeing, and the outcome is that fewer people end up with lifestyle-based mental health conditions. An accessible technical tool like ours helps to fill the gap between supply and demand and can complement and support treatments.”

More time being well, less time getting well

This recurring notion of tech and humans working in tandem is the bedrock of successful independent operators in the international health sector. Far from being a solo effort to replace existing structures, it is a vital plugging of gaps that inevitably form with so many people in need of help, and a bridge for those who simply need information rather than clinical intervention.

Remente’s 2,000 daily app downloads and 1.2 million global users are testament to the prevalence of mental health concerns, and individuals’ acceptance of digital tools to fill in when psychiatrists or physicians are not “bedside”.

“Despite the pitfalls and distractions that new technology and digital devices bring, they are beautiful tools for democratisation – making wellness information, practices and insights available to everyone, not just a few that have vast amounts of time, money and patience,” says Brudö.

“We know it is impossible to supply a life coach or therapist to everyone who needs one, so we created the Remente app in an attempt to grant everyone access to the tools they need to improve and maintain their mental wellbeing, regardless of who or where they are in the world.”

Unlike five-minute slots with a GP or brief encounters with a consultant, apps and digital tools also allow an unhindered amount of time for both patients and requisite carers to analyse the person as a whole – not just one ailment. Subsequently being treated as an entire person, rather than a machine with a broken part ,is what Desai believes makes digital intervention so important.

“For too long, the healthcare system has looked at us as a disease state,” he says. “They put us into boxes. But we’re human beings, not just the sickness that is ailing us.

“What we are understanding more is that patients are complex. For example, there is a complex relationship between depression or heart disease, and diabetes. There is a relationship between obesity and many other disease states.

“The relationship between all these diseases means we have to look at the whole person. We have to build technologies that help human beings lead healthier lives and that help them spend more time being well and less time getting well.”

From primary care to predictive care

From Germany, this is the mission of Clue, a company that has achieved international recognition for its focus on female health.

Clue’s app again targets a vast population that can’t all receive the level of attentive care that is sometimes required. The app is used by 11 million people around the world and enables users to track, monitor and learn about their periods, symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome, fertile window, moods and cramps, birth control methods, bodily fluctuations, and much more. Users can also take control of these facets to “live in tune with biology, not in spite of it”, as Clue CEO and co-founder Ida Tin puts it.

“At present, tracking and data processing in particular is underused within research and diagnostic fields,” she says about the use of tech in women’s health.

“It is shocking to me that, as a society, we were able to put a man on the moon, and yet family planning hadn’t seen any innovation since the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s. Instead, misinformation, a lack of education, and taboos around the topic of menstruation prevailed.”

This is not necessarily the fault of hospitals or medical professionals. It is simply logistical that not all individuals can be given the level of information and attention they need. It makes sense to fill this vast chasm of knowledge and care with digital tools that could fulfil the same duties.

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“We bridge both a knowledge gap and a communication gap,” says Tin. “We provide education for the user, and information for the medical professional. It is important to point out that we don’t replace a physical human approach, but instead provide an assistive tool that can make an interaction with a medical professional smoother and more efficient.”

Echoing both Brudö and Desai in this collaborative aim, the final hope is that institutions that are so traditionally steeped in bureaucracy and “how we’ve always done it” continue to allow these effective middlemen to serve in their name when patient-doctor interaction isn’t necessary, or to be the independent and reassuring stopgap when a clinician is needed but not immediately available.

In doing so, technology can help to facilitate an evolution from primary care to preventative care, and even predictive care, in conjunction with the world’s incredible – but stretched – institutions and medical professionals.

Whether it’s providing improved diagnostics, enhanced assimilation and sharing of data, real-time tracking and recording of condition changes, or simply a larger and more immediate source of knowledge when a human isn’t on hand – healthcare’s digital army is becoming ever more pivotal alongside traditional institutions in the modern age. This goes not just for users, but for health institutions too, and for the long-term development of the sector as a whole.

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