No one would disagree that everyone deserves the best healthcare. However, that’s always been impossible to achieve for two reasons: distance and affordability. Some people live far from good medical facilities, while others can’t afford them.
The first barrier to equality – distance from medical facilities – is one I experienced personally when growing up in rural Australia. When my father was recovering from a farm accident, he had to drive five hours for every appointment with his physiotherapist.
Today, technological innovations are quickly dismantling the barrier of distance. Patients can increasingly monitor a wide range of elements of their own health, such as blood pressure, in the comfort of their homes. Consultations via video allow patients to be diagnosed and treated by world-leading experts wherever they happen to live. In principle, remote diagnostics and consultations can benefit patients in rural Uganda as easily as those in rural Australia.
Affordability – the second barrier to equal access of healthcare – will yield benefits, however, only when the costs of new medical technologies come down.
My company Halo Medical Devices, for example, produces a new medical technology, a digital goniometer, which measures the range of movement in joints such as knees, shoulders or hips. I had the idea when, as a physiotherapy student, I was trained to use goniometers which hadn’t changed in decades and were difficult to use consistently: two physiotherapists could come up with measurements as much as 35 degrees apart.
As physiotherapists use goniometers to monitor patients’ recovery from injury or surgery, this scope for error has serious implications for patient outcomes and waste of resources. Some patients may have their recovery set back if they’re discharged too early, while others may be needlessly readmitted to hospital if they’re wrongly seen not to be progressing.
Halo’s digital goniometer is much more accurate – to within one degree. We are currently working on making it sufficiently intuitive for patients to be able to use at home, with connectivity to send measurements to their physiotherapists. That should save patients like my father the need to make five-hour journeys just to check that their recovery is progressing normally.
What will it take, though, for inventions like the digital goniometer to become widely available not only in rural areas of wealthy countries, but all over the world?
As with all new technologies, the more quickly they go to scale, the more quickly costs come down to a level where they can be afforded in less mature countries. We therefore need to encourage mature health systems to roll out new medical technologies as quickly as possible.
That means changing a culture of slowness to embrace change that often exists in the healthcare sector. Regulations are more stringent and approvals processes more time-consuming than they need to be. Managers are risk-averse, especially in taxpayer-funded systems. There’s a tendency for hard-pressed frontline workers to prefer to stick with familiar methods than learn new ones.
To speed the uptake of connective technologies, we need to demonstrate evidence that they can increase the efficiency of healthcare systems. The more effectively patients can monitor their health remotely, the fewer overly cautious visits they will make to their doctor’s surgery or emergency room, relieving pressure on overstretched facilities. The earlier health problems can be detected by home monitoring devices, the easier – and cheaper – they will be to treat. Giving people greater real-time knowledge about the state of their own health should also motivate them to take better care of themselves.
While we try to change the healthcare system culture, we need also to make it easier for innovators to find investors who are patient enough to endure what may be a long wait for returns. Crowdfunding has especially exciting potential for disruptive innovators in healthcare, as many potential investors will be able to see how an invention could benefit them.
Healthcare is a sector that’s especially ripe for young leadership. We are, after all, the generation with the longest expected lifespan and the most to gain from healthy old age. As populations age, technological innovation in healthcare will become one of the largest industries of the 21stt century. It could also do much to bridge the global health gap between rich and poor.
Author: Hayley Warren is the Founder of Halo Medical Devices and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
Image: A surgeon checks X-rays before a total knee arthroplasty operation in an operating room at the Ambroise Pare hospital in Marseille, southern France REUTERS/ Jean-Paul Pelissier