Mary Tolan, CEO of Accretive Health Inc, on why the medicine of tomorrow must make better use of data.  

Health is a cornerstone issue at this year’s Annual Meeting in Davos. Within this context, I took part in a discussion on the financial sustainability and future of health systems. We discussed the question: How will health systems look in 2040? The session was the culmination of the “Scenarios for Sustainable Health Systems” project, whose steering board I served on in 2012. The discussion centred on the visions of several countries for new and better healthcare models, and how we as health leaders can create paths and strategies to achieve such visions. What emerged is that transformational change is not merely necessary, it is inevitable.

For decades, healthcare spending has increased faster than economic growth, by an average of 2% in OECD countries. This has yielded great dividends in terms of longer and healthier lifespans and higher economic productivity. However, as non-communicable diseases rise globally, and as many populations age, financial sustainability will occur only if societies work together to make three things happen.

First, we must not only allow, but also embrace data and information to enable significant advances in health. The medicine of tomorrow needs to be better tailored to the needs of individuals, thereby increasing its effectiveness and reducing unintended negative consequences. Improved data and information are even today beginning to change the way health systems operate and practitioners make decisions, a transformation that can be accelerated by the faster and more productive adoption and integration of these data.

Second, healthcare systems need to introduce new delivery models. It turns out that medical science has made tremendous strides in understanding the basis of disease and means of treatment, but the ways in which healthcare is currently delivered has not progressed for decades. Health systems must adapt to face the challenge of a 21st-century disease mix, breaking legacy delivery moulds and spurring innovation to produce better services, better outcomes and better overall value.

Third, entire societies must build healthy living environments. Only if nations reshape demand for health services, thereby reducing the disease burden by helping people remain healthy and empowering them to manage their health, will health systems become sustainable. Health systems can encourage people to develop healthier habits, incentivize healthier consumption and develop an environment and infrastructure that promote population health.

Health is a key issue at this World Economic Forum Annual Meeting because it is a critical economic issue. As societies wrestle with achieving the financial sustainability of health systems, the three themes of embracing data and information, innovating healthcare delivery and building healthy cities and countries stand out as common strategies across the world. Today’s discussion highlighted that their success is neither assured nor guaranteed, but they definitely represent our best chance. The only way to capitalize on this chance is to focus on taking action – collaboratively across the whole of society.

Read the Sustainable Health Systems: Visions, Strategies and Scenarios report.

Mary Tolan is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Accretive Health Inc.

Image: A diabetes patient has her tongue photographed for records in Beijing. REUTERS/David Gray