How technology is transforming the healthcare sector

Technology is revolutionising most industries – healthcare included. In one aspect, the digital revolution is forcing the healthcare sector to provide better service – a three-day wait to see a doctor fails to meet customers’ new 24/7 service expectations. The use of technology in healthcare also has higher-level benefits, with the potential to improve patient care and employee productivity, as well as make Australians healthier. However, digital transformation doesn’t come without challenges.

I recently sat down with Susan Collins, Vice President, General Manager Healthcare & Life Sciences here at Salesforce, during her recent visit to the region to discuss some of the global trends she’s seeing in digital healthcare and how this might impact Australia.

What's driving the current technological revolution in healthcare?

Susan Collins (SC): At the core, it’s an increasing focus on putting patients at the centre of the equation. For so long, healthcare was quite provider-centric, and patients were merely moving through a factory.

As a result, most of the historical technology catered for the operational aspects of that experience, like managing data, legal records and billing. It wasn’t designed to engage the patient and, in many cases, didn’t facilitate collaboration between the different providers caring for that patient.

But consumer expectations have changed. Nearly every aspect of our lives now revolves around technology, and the experience is largely efficient, seamless and personalised. There’s a real focus in many industries to follow suit and step up, providing great customer experiences at scale.

There’s been a real idea in healthcare that we're different or special – look at doctors and pagers – and this sentiment has been an impediment to innovation. Although I do think this mindset is finally changing. The industry is starting to realise that there are more efficient ways to deliver healthcare, and that technology underpins the solution.

How do you think healthcare will be improved by technology in the future?

SC: It’s important that as technology revolutionises the healthcare sector, we don’t forget ‘the last mile’ – transforming patient data into insight and making that insight actionable.

When you think about delivering things as basic as treatment reminders, or surveys to understand a patient's condition, that’s quite easy to do from a technical perspective. But the challenge is integrating that information into the care record, so the people looking after that patient, devising care management and treatment plans, have that additional information – that’s incredibly powerful.

We have a great hospital system in NYC that received a government grant to support patients with chronic illnesses that are in housing or economic situations that might prevent them from getting treatment. Using technology, they’ve been able to connect these patients with not only really good clinical care, but also community and social services that improve the chances of them accessing that clinical care.

What’s the next step for digital healthcare?

SC: An area we’re starting to explore is a concept called the ‘smart hospital’. Most of us have had some experience with the backwards nature of a hospital admission. You arrive, complete a lot of forms and then get asked the same question, by different people, over and over again.

For people with chronic illnesses, this can mean memorising and reciting the details of a 10-year medical history, and receiving treatment that can only ever be as personalised and effective as that memory allows.

For others, it might mean lying on a gurney waiting for surgery while the Operating Room is in use, with surgeons in the same boat, waiting. There's a great deal of waste and inefficiency in the provision of hospital services, resulting in poor experiences for patients and staff.

In other industries, we’ve moved so far beyond that inefficient, bad customer experience, so it’s surprising it still remains in healthcare. And there’s no reason why common customer-centric processes – the kind you’d expect in other areas of your life – can’t be adopted in healthcare.

For example, if a patient is heading to a hospital floor, the nurses should be seamlessly provided with all of the relevant patient information. This seems simple, but often the information is hard to come by, and doctors and nurses end up wasting time looking for it. These inefficiencies aggregate in the course of a typical hospital experience, creating lots of chaos and waiting.

So, a ‘smart hospital’ is where everything is more efficient and runs intelligently. For example, this could be an automated notification sent to transportation staff advising them that a procedure has been delayed and how best to proceed. This way the patient isn’t waiting anxiously wondering if they’ve been forgotten.

There's a tonne of opportunity to optimise the healthcare experience through technology. Receiving advice on where to park would improve the experience enormously, or an app that tells the person who's accompanying a patient what's going on and what they can expect. These status updates would be very routine in other industries, yet the healthcare industry isn’t there yet in some regards.

And this kind of digital transformation doesn’t just improve the patient experience. It would also have a very measurable impact on a hospital’s financial performance, staff morale, and the ability to attract and retain quality employees.

How do you think this kind of digital transformation will impact Australia, where the healthcare system is largely government-run?

SC: There’s a lot of advantages in Australia for that very fact – it is largely government-run. Having the ability to identify the population you're working with is something a government agency is able to do much better than many private organisations.

Here in Australia, it's encouraging to see how forward-thinking the healthcare vision is and how service-oriented the agencies are. Having that determination to serve the population in an effective way is a huge advantage. Common global challenges, like determining the underlying data that's required to inform these systems of engagement, has already largely been solved. I think we can expect some impressive examples of customer-centricity to come out of the healthcare space in Australia very soon.

Learn more about the changing role of technology in today's customer-driven era, download the State of IT report today.