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Healthcare digitisation at point financial services was in 1990s

For all the talk about digitised healthcare, the sector is only where banking was in the 1990s. How can it catch up? Can the Covid-19 pandemic crisis be a catalyst?

If our health service was as digitised as the financial services industry, imagine how different our response to Covid-19 might have been.

A classic study by Harvard Business School on digitisation identified that most sectors have not yet exploited their “digital assets”, with the exception of the media and technology sectors. What also came out of this study was that health sector digitisation is decades behind all other sectors. Healthcare was ranked as 17 out of 20 – fourth from the bottom.

Today, healthcare across the world is undergoing a crisis of great magnitude. The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has exposed its weaknesses and how behind it is, digitisation-wise.

In this context, I believe that healthcare is at the point now where the financial services sector was in the early 1990s. The processes and interactions are not integrated and digital assets are not being exploited. I think the reason is that over the past few decades, we’ve been patching up digital solutions on old structures in the health sector instead of transforming it, as was the case with the financial sector. It’s like we’ve poured concrete on the existing structure making it harder to dismantle and renew.

But what do we mean by digitisation? If we think back to when it all started in the early 1970s (when I was working on the first-generation IBM machines), digitisation meant building transactional applications and automated processes. Thereafter, in the 1990s, the emphasis shifted from applications to communication and networks.

Now, communication is almost free and software is in abundance. As such, the big value in digitisation has shifted from applications and communication to owning and monetising digital assets. Artificial intelligence (AI) requires big data and unless we organise and digitise health data we will not be able to exploit the best of what AI can provide to this sector.

“I hope that once the Covid-19 health pandemic is over, we will remember it, in years to come, as the catalyst to pushing healthcare, technology-wise, into the 21st century”
Jamil El-Imad, Imperial College

Digitisation and AI will accelerate our scientific progress in diagnosing and treating diseases. It can decentralise and democratise healthcare, empower us with our health data and will help transform the sector from the clinically centric model to a model that encompasses, education, prevention, early diagnostics and self-therapy.

Digitisation will help optimise the services and deliver more effective diagnostics and treatment with a significantly better patient experience. Today, one in three epilepsy patients are misdiagnosed and one in five multiple sclerosis patients are misdiagnosed. These are not new brain disorders – epilepsy has been known for over 1,000 years.

Over the past decade, I have met, through my work, some of the most dedicated and passionate health researchers, physicians and medical workers. If we empower them with modern digital tools, I am convinced that we will transform healthcare and bring it into the 21st century.

Healthcare digitisation could open the door to more efficient research, better productivity tools, better analytics, better collaboration, better diagnostics, better education and prevention, the introduction of software as a therapy, virtual care, personalised therapy, distributed virtual clinical trials and much more. It will lay the grounds for efficient and effective low-cost health solutions to everyone. In other words, it will help us provide vastly lower-cost health solutions to vastly more people.

I hope that once the Covid-19 health pandemic is over, we will remember it, in years to come, as the catalyst to pushing healthcare, technology-wise, into the 21st century. This may happen if we act now and find the courage to tackle the many challenges of health sector digitisation head-on.

Dr Jamil El-Imad is an honorary senior research fellow in the department of electrical and electronic engineering at Imperial College. His key research interests are in brain signal analysis, virtual reality (VR), brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and big data. He and his team are developing systems for epilepsy prediction and other neurological disorders. He is also developing VR systems for democratising human experience and for the treatment of phobias. El-Imad is also leading a team that is launching a biosensory cloud service offering big data management, storage and processing solutions. He additionally promotes brain research as CEO of The Brain Forum, a charity that convenes world leaders in science, technology, healthcare and business to advance our understanding of how the brain works. He is also a fellow at the Institution of Engineering and Technology. 

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