Why healthcare’s digital journey must continue, even in an endemic COVID-19 world

The CEO of Farrer Park Hospital, Dr Timothy Low, believes it is imperative for healthcare providers to continue their digital transformation in order to remain relevant in a post-COVID-19 world.

The healthcare landscape in Asia has changed radically since the start of COVID-19, with the majority of hospitals in the region undergoing a digital transformation to cope with the challenges of the pandemic.

This led to the rise of digital tools such as telemedicine, electronic medical records, remote monitoring devices, and e-payment systems, among others, in the healthcare industry.

As a result of these technologies, healthcare providers were able to continue providing quality care to their patients, many of whom were either unable to visit hospitals in person due to travel restrictions, or were simply unwilling to do so due to their fear of being infected by COVID-19.

Thankfully, the pandemic in most countries has since stabilised – the high rate of vaccinations, coupled with the dominance of the less deadly Omicron variant, has allowed for many countries to hasten their transition to an endemic COVID-19.

While this is likely to result in an increase of in-person visits to hospitals this year, the digital transformation that many healthcare providers undertook during the pandemic is expected to continue, said Dr Timothy Low, CEO of Farrer Park Hospital (FPH).

“Digital transformation propelled by various health tech will be the most considerable development this year, not just for Southeast Asia but globally,” Dr Low shared. “This wide-ranging sector includes telemedicine, data analytics, clinical decision support, mobile health, telehealth, and artificial intelligence (AI) for remote patient monitoring.

“Digital adoption broadly refers to the transference of manual processes into a digital format on various platforms to help reduce wastage and facilitate information exchange. In healthcare, the most critical driver is to bridge the gap of in-patient hospital visits. In this time of Covid-19, it can be onerous and impractical with the border measures. But with digital, they now can continue to be cared for and monitored virtually, and the case notes can then be shared seamlessly with different specialists across borders.

“Though it was the pandemic that accelerated the awareness and adoption of telehealth and telemonitoring, the trend is likely to stay on for operational efficacy, and to improve disease screening. Specialist doctors can monitor patients virtually, but an in-country primary care network can manage the dispensing of medicine and regular review until their next in-person physical check-up. Hence the possibility of a lower cost for remote patients.”

In order to prepare for these developments, Dr Low claims hospitals should strengthen their infrastructure for digitalisation in order to seamlessly “meld medicine, the internet of medical things to collect data at the user level, telemedicine technology to improve communication between patients and doctors, and electronic medical records”.

He added: “Data interoperability is foreseeable, due to the huge amounts of data collected from various operating systems that store and code data differently. Another pressing matter concerns patient data security and privacy.”

“Next, it is to address digital literacy among patients on using technology and for doctors, to widely use telehealth as a standard of patient visits.”

For healthcare providers that are looking to take the next step in their digital journey, however, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics – to assist with operations, and to improve clinical outcomes – could be the answer.

Dr Low explained: “AI and machine learning in healthcare is in their infancy but are already disrupting existing models of care. For instance, virtual reality is a safer and more efficient alternative to treat pain instead of handing out prescriptions for pain management. In addition, it has a library of interactive games and therapeutic landscapes to draw users’ attention away from pain, reducing dependence on pain medications.”

“As for robotics, they can perform tasks with excellent precision and strength…it also plays a key role in surgeon training, by allowing them to practice procedures and hone skills using robotics controls.”

Both AI technology and robotics have already been implemented at FPH – AI, for example, is used to support the hospital’s MRI screening tool to improve diagnosis and care plans for their dementia patients.

“The screening quantifies brain tissue volume in MRI scans to help assess care plans and medication effectiveness,” Dr Low elaborated. “Likewise, we inked an MOU with Medtronic to start the AI-assisted Auscultation for Early Cardiac Diseases Program at FPH. Through this program, our network of GPs, cardiologists, and specialists will pick up signs that may go unnoticed, allowing better diagnosis.”

“We also have adopted robotic arm-assisted treatment for the hip and knee since 2018. It uses a CT scan to create a 3D virtual model of the knee’s unique anatomy. The robotic arm then guides the surgeon within the predefined area, allowing for a more accurate and better-aligned knee replacement.”

“In addition, we are currently exploring using service robots to enhance workflow processes, prevent the spread of infection by reducing direct contact, remote monitoring of patients, effective and programmed cleaning and disinfecting common areas.”

While AI technology has traditionally been associated with imaging and radiology, its usage can potentially be expanded to nearly all facets of hospital management, including administration, patient experience, and data analytics.

This is especially useful with helping hospitals that suffer from a shortage in manpower – an issue that many healthcare providers around the world are faced with.

“AI in healthcare in the form of a robot can be designed to assist human nurses with routine tasks such as fetching and restocking supplies,” said Dr Low. “Chatbots and virtual health assistants are other AI-based technologies that patients become familiar with.”

Dr Low, however, warned that hospitals should not seek to be too reliant on AI and robots, as the essence of healthcare is underlined by care and empathy.

“AI and robots are no silver bullet to advance healthcare and are nothing without the human touch,” Dr Low mused. “A robot will get the job done, but it cannot give empathetic treatment and cure on the emotional level to the patients. Hence, in harnessing the power of AI and robots in healthcare work, it has to be always employed with compassion in patient care service – High Tech with High Touch.”

But for Dr Low, every new initiative and technology that is implemented in FPH is ultimately geared towards one goal: to continuously provide quality care for their patients.

“One of the critical values and mission of FPH is to focus on giving our patients the quality care they need, patient safety, coordinating treatment plans with the patient’s other providers, and good clinical outcomes,” said Dr Low. “We remain committed to being the medical provider of choice for all patients.”