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Technology can transform healthcare - but a culture change is also needed

Jason Ward


 

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Despite only 4pc of Irish GPs having used the technology previously, telemedicine quickly became a core part of the response in primary care as doctors replaced face-to-face appointments with virtual clinics (stock photo)

Despite only 4pc of Irish GPs having used the technology previously, telemedicine quickly became a core part of the response in primary care as doctors replaced face-to-face appointments with virtual clinics (stock photo)

Despite only 4pc of Irish GPs having used the technology previously, telemedicine quickly became a core part of the response in primary care as doctors replaced face-to-face appointments with virtual clinics (stock photo)

Technology has proven to be a critical element of Ireland's healthcare sector in recent months. As the Covid-19 virus threat spread, healthcare professionals faced the unprecedented challenge of meeting the needs of those infected while also, where possible, maintaining distancing guidelines. There was also a need to continue to meet the healthcare needs of those with non-Covid related health challenges - often people requiring urgent or emergency care as well as those with long-term chronic illnesses.

What we have seen, and applauded, over the past four months is the bravery and commitment of those working across the Irish healthcare system and, indeed, the world. These frontline workers never shied away from doing what was needed, and we thank them for that. What has become apparent is that in many cases, access to the latest technology has helped them meet the challenge they had to face.

Despite only 4pc of Irish GPs having used the technology previously, telemedicine quickly became a core part of the response in primary care as doctors replaced face-to-face appointments with virtual clinics. Electronic prescriptions helped to enable social distancing while providing a convenient service for patients.

We've also witnessed how advanced computing continues to help researchers to gain better insights as part of the ongoing quest to better understand the virus, including the identification of prevention methods, treatment options and helping to determine where resources are needed most.

Supercomputers have been put to work to mitigate the spread of the virus and to help solve some of the real-world challenges it creates. In Ireland, a supercomputer provided by Dell Technologies will provide Ireland's applied AI research centre, CeADAR, with the power to drive innovation in healthcare and beyond.

Turning point for change

But does the increasing use of technology mark a turning point for digital transformation in healthcare or was it simply an emergency response to the crisis?

I believe we should take the lessons from this unprecedented time, apply them and build on them. Many of the practices that were introduced because of necessity are ones that could work on a permanent basis. Virtual clinics have proved to be efficient and convenient for both patient and doctor, so why stop now? The roll out of technology at all levels of the healthcare system has shown us all how digital health services can deliver care more effectively and empower patients with better outcomes.

Ireland now has a unique opportunity to use ad-hoc changes as a catalyst for long-term transformation. The proposed Programme for Government reinforces the commitment to implement Sláintecare and would see greater investment in modern eHealth and ICT infrastructure.

The introduction of new means of securely sharing patient information across the public health system is something that has long been needed.

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The new children's hospital will be the first acute hospital in the country to have an electronic healthcare record for each patient. This will, in time, be the norm across the system as a whole. Virtual clinics and leveraging data to inform decision-making will deliver better patient outcomes.

However, rapid change won't be achievable all at once and nor will it occur without addressing some of the long-standing obstacles that have slowed the pace of reform over the past decade.

Overcoming persistent obstacles

While some progress has been made in moving to digital health records, the adoption of electronic medical records stands at just 3pc in Europe. Accelerating the shift from paper to the Cloud would enable GPs and consultants at primary and acute care level in Ireland to instantly access patient history and make more informed diagnoses.

In many instances, outdated infrastructure is hindering healthcare professionals in quickly sharing diagnostic imaging and lab results. Within a single hospital, there can be several different systems for patient data creating interoperability issues and cracks within the system.

Although initial investments in e-health under Project Ireland 2040 were steps in the right direction, the rate of adoption of emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning has not been as fast as it should have been.

We need to accelerate the deployment of technology to help make a real difference for patients and staff.

However, the greatest obstacle to enduring transformation is neither the right technology nor strategy. It is culture and mindset. Digital transformation requires a change in culture that encourages new ways of thinking and working at all levels of the healthcare system and one that focuses on the outcomes that can be achieved for patients through technology.

Flexible working can mean that care becomes more focused on the individual, both for patients and for our medical professionals.

With the help of remote technology, the roll-out of a virtual 24-hour triage service can ensure patients have the always-on care they need while also directing them into the correct stream.

No time to delay

Ireland's population is expected to increase by one million by 2040 while the number of people aged 75-84 will jump by 76pc by 2031.

If we are to ensure that healthcare professionals are fully equipped to meet these growing demands on the service, technology will need to play a greater role. We have to change how things are done rather than doing more of the same things.

Although digital transformation brings its own challenges, it can be as simple as implementing technology that is in wide use, such as health monitoring apps on phones or drawing insights from patient data from across the system.

Just see how the adoption of the Covid tracker app has been adopted by the Irish public. Over 1.5m people have now downloaded the app.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to change mindsets. Let's not waste this opportunity and let us instead use Covid-19 as a catalyst for widespread transformation.

In doing so, Ireland's healthcare system will be able to better sustain the wellbeing of a growing population while continually improving the outcomes for patients around the country.

Jason Ward is vice-president and managing director, Dell Technologies Ireland


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