The growing healthcare crisis: can technology help?

Talk to anyone involved in healthcare today and they will tell you about the growing pressure of controlling costs.

The World Health Organisation presents us with some startling facts: by 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion people (up from 7.5 billion currently), 2 billion of which will be over 60 years of age.

By 2020, for the first time ever, the number of people aged 60 and over will outnumber children under five years of age. Nearly 30% of the world’s population was classified as obese in 2015 and obesity rates are projected to increase further by 2030.

Obesity and ageing are major contributing factors to the spiralling costs affecting the healthcare sector – which is struggling to cope with the demands this places on the system. Global healthcare spend is rising by around 5.2% every year, and is tipped to hit more than $18 trillion by 2040.

“Technology that empowers people to take more control of their own health, and that provides educational support, is driving a big shift in the traditional healthcare delivery model.”

Ben Casse, Informatics Research & Development Manager, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare

How can healthcare systems cope?
We all need healthcare. And we all need healthcare that is sustainable, affordable and accessible. It is logical then, as we accept increasing levels of technology in our lives, to ask - can technology help?

“Absolutely,” says Ben Casse, Informatics Research & Development Manager at Fisher & Paykel Healthcare. “The development of technology that empowers people to take more control of their own health, and that provides educational support is driving a big shift in the traditional healthcare delivery model.

“If all patients are required to go to a clinic or a hospital to see a clinician every time they feel unwell, then it’s difficult and expensive for healthcare systems to support that number of patients. But if we can provide technology that enables patients to take a greater level of responsibility for their own care – by recognising changes and intervening early, the less likely it is that those conditions will escalate to a point where they do need intervention by the health system.”

It’s a compelling argument that’s gaining traction. The popularity of wearable devices and apps to track and monitor health is a case in point. “Wearable devices are really interesting from the point of view that they’ve shown people have a hunger to understand themselves more,” says Casse. “People are wanting to share that health responsibility now. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg – we have to ask, how can we take that data from just being interesting, to being something that becomes actionable; that is going to help someone continue to improve how they live every day? I believe there is still a gap between being aware of something and being motivated enough to drive significant, lasting change. The opportunity lies in how we innovate to cross that barrier.”  

In Casse’s opinion, part of the solution lies in being able to innovate to create technological solutions that are not only functional, but also comfortable, or in his words, even “delightful” to use.

“Innovation doesn’t just apply to the device, or the therapy itself, but also to the patient experience. I think how you’re interacting with people should be central to the design, and is just as important as the tech requirements. We’re talking about changing someone’s life – that’s the level of conversation that we need to be having.”

“How can we make something that fits into people’s lives and is comfortable and delightful to use?”

Ben Casse, Informatics Research & Development Manager, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare

Self-awareness goes hand in hand with better tools
Education also plays a large part in reducing costs. Government-led healthcare promotion campaigns, focused on encouraging healthy living and managing chronic diseases at home, are more relevant than ever.

The World Health Organisation has stated that 80% of heart disease, stroke and diabetes are preventable, and 40% of cancers could be avoided by lifestyle changes.

But while there is abundant research pointing to this being the most effective way to bring about positive change, it’s also the most difficult. Health promotion requires action at the personal, social and political levels to promote positive behaviour change that will improve or protect health.

While change is happening, the potential remains huge – and needed. Initiatives like remote patient monitoring and connected health technologies that can help manage healthcare costs by improving compliance and reducing the need for face-to-face medical intervention are shifting the boundaries. Telemedicine, which is recognised for its capacity to benefit communities in both developed and developing countries through cost-effective and high quality health care services, is growing in popularity.

It may be that the solution is a combination of approaches, but central to any premise must be that although significant change is required, we must be able to achieve it while not losing sight of our overarching goal: to provide the best possible healthcare for our people and our communities.

Further Reading

Why data alone can’t help healthcare

Insights from data are useful, but only up to a point.

What product design is learning from video games

Video games have more in common with product design than you might think.

Building the next generation of engineers

Working with SouthSci, a science programme for students in South Auckland.