Digital health transformation requires holistic not episodic care

Whole-person care is what healthcare needs to make a transformational shift. With digital health, we could see this finally happen. Correctly implemented, digital health could mobilize qualified care providers to facilitate easier access to healthcare services in a holistic and timely fashion. The vision behind it is to combine technologies across the patient care journey to deliver holistic care and insights. This will facilitate the collection and understanding of data from diagnostics to lifestyle and disease management, moving away from the current episodic model.

Under the existing paradigm, healthcare is delivered in an episodic format. Attention is placed on treatment and risk management which limits the patient’s ability to cope, acclimatize, and thrive. But digital health facilitates the successful delivery of long-term and holistic care which takes into consideration the needs of both patients and healthcare providers. The vision is to transform “digital healthcare” into “healthcare”.

Added to this is the fact that the terms digital healthcare and telehealth are often used interchangeably. Telehealth is just one element of digital healthcare, and its goal is to remove the barrier of physical presence and offer care while providing convenience and accessibility for patients. Telehealth makes it possible for patients to receive care without having to leave home, drive to a clinic and try to find parking before an appointment, or find the time off work, or childcare to make the visit. With eliminated travel time and after-hours availability, telehealth can be delivered anytime and anywhere. And it goes both ways – healthcare providers can use telehealth to expand their footprint to remote areas without having to relocate to meet these patients easily and they can also cater to more patients at a time.

Telehealth focuses on acute and episodic issues via video or telephone consultations. Many of the popular telehealth platforms are providing concierge medicine and acute care services, not specialty care or long-term care. These services are critical to healthcare, especially when dealing with short, follow-up visits. However, they are not designed to meaningfully address a patient’s long-term needs.

Digital healthcare takes a more holistic approach that’s delivered to the patient longitudinally via an ecosystem. Diverse data resources, devices, technologies, and applications are all seamlessly connected and working together to create a more complete view of the patient – one that doesn’t rely on disconnected pieces of data. It continuously offers new ways to deliver healthcare and improve patient outcomes. Thanks to digital healthcare, clinicians can make the necessary adjustments and more informed assessments of the health of patients and the general population. The aim is to deliver the right treatment, to the right person, and at the right time to improve decision-making and limit costs.

Telehealth certainly had its place during the height of the pandemic to deliver virtual care absent geographical barriers. It was important for patients to have access to episodic care for ailments such as rashes, fevers, flu, and other occasional disorders. However, when it comes to chronic illnesses and overspending, telehealth alone won’t move the needle as it requires more long-term engagement. “85% of our healthcare costs are a result of chronic conditions. Continuous, connected care is a necessity to improve outcomes for chronic patients. They need a different kind of telemedicine – one that facilitates improved care coordination and continuous provider access,” Dr. Waqaas Al-Siddiq, DBA, Founder and CEO of Biotricity Inc.

Telehealth as a singular touchpoint can be supported by other innovations to help move the needle on chronic illnesses. Access to digital healthcare as an all-inclusive service is enhanced by several new tech and services including wearable devices, remote diagnostics, sensors, electronic health records, big data, the internet of things, software, and new applications. As we know, but often forget, it’s easier and cheaper to prevent disease than cure it. If telehealth can help bridge the gap between patients and healthcare providers, episodic care can be reduced. These innovations help to positively influence patients to prevent and manage illness all while being empowered and self-aware.

Digital healthcare enables a whole person, holistic approach the importance of which providers have been emphasizing for some time. Although multi-layered information is gathered, limited information is being exchanged due to poor service coordination. Breaking down data silos and integrating services and care for patients will give physicians the tools they need to better coordinate their care, make decisions, and act preventatively. Very recent advances in digital health are allowing providers to provide comprehensive care and support for patients in a way that was previously impossible.

By following the patient at each stage of its disease progression, from diagnosis to disease management, and integrating a variety of technologies, digital health provides deeper insights and help for care management. For example, a patient could receive a remote diagnosis, move to the hospital for a procedure, and then be managed remotely with home-based monitoring. Each of these solutions would support the other and insights would be delivered at each stage to the care team. Taking it a step further, each stage would also focus on patient engagement and support, all delivered through digital health.

Providing patients with tools such as wearables and monitors is both encouraging self-management, self-service, and participation, and incorporating telehealth into this digital strategy. The result is a huge improvement in patient engagement. This allows also for more opportunities to be proactive and improve collaboration with care providers. With the use of powerful analytics, science, and real-time patient monitoring, patients can enjoy more personalized and targeted care. This has a ripple effect of reduced cost and improved patient satisfaction. It also enables better resource management by using proven tools used in other sectors to match capacity with demand, plan staff rosters and improve scheduling.

As increasing accessibility of telehealth services continues to remain a focus in healthcare, it is important to equally focus on long-term, specialty services. Why? To avoid the risk of patients making uninformed decisions or receiving unsafe advice from persons online moonlighting as legitimate care providers, healthcare providers must be an integral part of the long-term digital health surveillance process. Emphasizing and increasing accessibility to long-term care will translate into a drastic reduction in unnecessary appointments, costly referrals, and avoidable admissions. The focus needs to be placed on patients having access to trusted and reliable information to avoid neglecting or avoiding care. Digital health can – and should – be the main driver for specialty services through safe devices, software, platforms, and care team members.

Ultimately, there is a timely opportunity to make “digital healthcare into a better version of healthcare”. Telehealth conveniently provides a high-quality service to patients in need of episodic care. However, the goal is to provide more holistic care to patients in a less transactional way. There are new applications and technology that enable the accessibility of reliable information and healthcare services. With the help of digital health, patients can work closely with providers to help manage or even prevent illnesses by being self-empowered and educated about their wellbeing. And with telehealth working as part of the digital ecosystem, patients, and the population at large can have better insight into health concerns. Building a better healthcare system is possible – if we focus on holistic care, not episodic care.

Photo: ismagilov, Getty Images

Leave a Comment