Amidst ongoing health crises, like an extreme shortage of healthcare professionals and rising costs, digital healthcare has the power to play a vital role in the solution for global health services. The emergence of digital technology has revolutionised the healthcare industry, creating new opportunities to improve health outcomes. The traditional model of healthcare, examination, diagnosis, treatment, and at-home care has the potential to be enhanced by tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, mobile applications and sensors, wearables, and Telehealth – to name just a few. Integrating digital technology into healthcare has created a new determinant of health, which can impact individuals’ health status and well-being.
Digital technology in healthcare
Digital technology has the potential to empower individuals to take charge of their health and wellness by providing them with access to health information, resources, and tools. Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data, reported over 41,000 mHealth apps available in the App Store as of late 2022 – enabling individuals to use these mobile apps to monitor their physical activity levels, track their food intake, and access educational resources on healthy lifestyle habits. Indeed, in a Software Advice survey of nearly 500 U.S. patients, an astounding 86% agree that utilising this emerging tech on their devices improved their health and quality of life. Wearable devices can also monitor various physiological parameters, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and sleep patterns, providing individuals with real-time feedback on their health status and promoting healthy habits in and outside the hospital.
Telemedicine and Telehealth have also emerged as popular digital technologies that enable individuals to access healthcare services remotely. Unsurprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote health services when getting out to see a practitioner seemed near impossible. The technology continues to be critical in rural areas where individuals have limited mobility or access to healthcare providers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, residents in rural areas are more likely to pass away prematurely than urban residents – making these Telehealth options imperative. Electronic health records also enable healthcare providers to access patient data efficiently, improving the quality of care and reducing medical errors.
However, integrating digital technology into healthcare also poses potential risks and challenges. For example, the widespread use of social media platforms and increased screen time have been associated with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and decreased attention spans. Indeed, the British Medical Association tracked a record 4.6 million referrals in 2022. Using wearable devices can also raise concerns regarding data privacy and security. As these wearable device makers enable more sophisticated health data measurements, wearable users and makers require greater trust and precautions.
Aside from the issues accompanying a rise in the adoption of digital tech, a wider challenge is the fundamental problem of digital inclusivity. How do we ensure that the elderly, who are less digitally literate, or those without the means to buy smartphones or watches, are not left behind the curve of digital healthcare services?
Ensuring digital inclusion is included in the digital health strategy
Digital inclusion is critical when placing digital as a new determinant of health. Digital inclusion encompasses the equitable access and use of digital technology and resources to promote social, economic, and health outcomes for everyone. As digital technology becomes increasingly integrated into healthcare, ensuring digital inclusion is paramount to prevent further health disparities, particularly among marginalised communities. Without digital inclusion, individuals who lack access to digital technology or have limited digital literacy skills may face more barriers than others in accessing critical health information and resources. For instance, individuals lacking internet access may have difficulty accessing telemedicine services, online health resources, and electronic health records. Similarly, individuals lacking digital literacy skills may need help navigating complex digital health platforms or understanding the health information provided online versus being explained to them in person.
Digital inclusion is crucial in addressing health disparities and promoting health equity in a new digital era. It is essential to ensure that individuals have access to digital technology and resources and possess the necessary skills and knowledge to use them to contribute to the success of their health and well-being – but how can digital service and healthcare providers ensure this? Ensuring digital inclusion can be achieved through a variety of initiatives centred around reliable connectivity, digital literacy, and culture-specific health resources. For instance, health providers can focus on expanding broadband access in rural areas or for those with limited connectivity. They can also work to provide digital literacy training through programs and resources and create accessible culturally-sensitive digital health resources.
Digital health is here to stay
Digital technology has emerged as a new determinant of health that can impact individuals’ health outcomes positively or negatively depending on their resources. Digital technology in healthcare can save patients (and providers) money, time, stress, and empowers individuals to take more control in managing their health conditions. However, it’s crucial to promote digital inclusion so we can ensure that digital technology will advance health equity and improve health outcomes for all individuals.
About the author
Sukhmeet is the Chief Health Officer at Monstarlab. He trained as a clinician in emergency medicine and public health in London and enjoys playing at the confluence of meaningful, empathic digital transformation and population health and wellbeing. He is widely published in the field of health services research, specifically patient safety and health system redesign. Most recently, he has led digital transformation across a large group of 600+ individuals across the disciplines of data and analytics across NHS England and NHS Improvement. He also has a keen focus on developing the workforce to meet the challenges of tomorrow, and leads a pan-UK endeavour that brings together 16,500 data professionals and analysts called AnalystX.
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