One of the greatest achievements of modern times – the overall global advance of public health – is struggling. Around the world, healthcare systems are under strain as populations swell and grow older, helped by the extension of sanitation and medical services, as well as breakthroughs in technology and disease treatment. Emerging markets, such as China, South Africa and Brazil, are reacting to these challenges by adopting connected care technology to help “leapfrog” more advanced countries.

Leapfrogging is a phenomenon where emerging countries embrace technological change more rapidly than developed countries; they adopt new technologies without necessarily importing earlier iterations first, or having to deal with the problems that legacy systems and processes impose.

The explosion of mobile devices in continents lacking fixed-line infrastructure, such as Africa (and the consequent rise of industries like mobile banking) is a prime example of leapfrogging in action. Starting with the individuals, equipped with nothing more than a smartphone and an app, the connected care regime seamlessly connects to the healthcare professional, who is equipped with tools to monitor and care for a patient using individualized data to monitor their health.

Connected care technologies including medical-grade devices to monitor critical vital signs like heart rate and respiration can make integrated healthcare a reality – allowing doctors to deliver more personalized treatment plans, and patients to connect and engage with their healthcare professionals and specialists, virtually anywhere, any time.

But how well positioned are the world’s health systems to take advantage of these connected technologies?

A connected approach to healthcare

The inaugural Future Health Index Report, commissioned by Philips, looks at perceptions of people across the globe to assess the urgent healthcare challenges emerging globally. In one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, more than 25,000 patients and 2,600 healthcare professionals in 13 countries provided a valuable view into the perceptions, behaviours and attitudes impacting the current healthcare landscape, exposing the biggest areas for opportunities, and the barriers causing challenges to improvement.

The report measures accessibility and level of integration of healthcare services, and the adoption of connected care technology throughout national healthcare systems. The report’s main focus was to demonstrate how using technology can foster integration and connected care within the healthcare system to drive efficiencies and economies of scale.

The study focuses on three factors necessary to move towards a more integrated system of healthcare: access to healthcare, integration of the current health system, and adoption of connected care technology.

Over three-quarters (76%) of healthcare professionals in developed countries agree that their patients have access to the treatments needed for current and future medical conditions, compared to just over half of those in emerging countries (58%). What is surprising, however, is that emerging countries seem to be leading the way in terms of connected care technology adoption.

The United Arab Emirates ranks highest on the index (65.3 – with 100 being the maximum score), Germany and Japan among the lowest (54.5 and 49.0 respectively) when it comes to readiness to implement an integrated health system. The four emerging countries surveyed, South Africa, China, Brazil and the UAE, are also the four highest scoring countries in regards to adoption levels for connected care technologies.

  How prepared are countries for the health challenges of tomorrow?

The path to growth in emerging markets

Emerging markets are embracing new technology, leapfrogging the old ways of doing business. Combined with the lack of legacy systems in place, developing economies are able to adapt quicker and adopt innovative technology to help improve healthcare at a much faster pace than developed nations. A three-year investigation by the World Economic Forum, for instance, emphasized the importance of leapfrogging through targeted partnerships to address pressing healthcare issues through initiatives like UNAIDS to end AIDS or treating non-communicable diseases.

These rigorous tests and technology pilots are bearing fruit. According to the Future Health Index Report, 51% of healthcare professionals in the emerging countries surveyed say they are knowledgeable about connected care technologies. Only 25% of healthcare professionals in the developed world, despite arguably better access to the devices and information, would say the same.

A difference in perceptions

The success of these sorts of projects leads to a difference in perception between developed and emerging economies. The rigorous data and privacy regulations designed to protect patients in developed countries present challenges to the free flow of information needed in more integrated, technology-driven healthcare systems.

In Germany, half of healthcare professionals (50%) see privacy and security concerns as a top barrier to the adoption of connected care devices by the majority of the population, as do 44% in Japan and Sweden. By comparison, only 16% in South Africa and 18% in the UAE had the same concerns.

Bureaucracy in developed countries is also seen as a major stumbling block to integrated healthcare systems. Over half (54%) of healthcare professionals and 43% of patients name health bureaucracy as a major barrier to the further coordination of healthcare in their country. This view is especially prevalent in the UK and Sweden (68% and 72% respectively), whereas those in developing nations are less conscious of a bureaucratic barrier (16% in UAE and 34% in South Africa).

With fewer concerns about bureaucracy and privacy fears, it makes sense that the emerging countries would be far more optimistic about what part technology has to play in combating global health challenges. In emerging economies, 80% of healthcare professionals believe connected care technology is important in improving the overall health of the population compared to only 50% in industrialized countries. A total of 73% of healthcare professionals in emerging countries also admit to seeing a future where everybody owns connected care technology to manage their own health (vs. 44% in the developed world).

Patients in the UAE, South Africa, China and Brazil were similarly optimistic ̶ 36% of patients say that connected care would make them more effective in managing their health (vs. 28% in the developed markets). Those countries are also relatively early adopters; in the UAE and South Africa, 73% and 48% of healthcare professionals respectively feel connected care devices are already often or always being used when patients are being treated for a medical condition, compared to 12% of their counterparts in Japan and 23% in the UK.

The benefits of integration

There was little doubt among audiences in all countries questioned that integration is worth pursuing. Sizable majorities of both patients and healthcare professionals (69% and 85% respectively) believe integration can improve the quality of care for patients. Most doctors (88%) also agree that integration of the health system can have a positive impact on the overall health of the population.

How countries get there will vary. There is no silver bullet that is suitable for all, but it appears an element of two-way learning will be suitable for both emerging and developed countries. The developed countries have much to gain from assessing how developed nations are using connected care to their advantage. On the flip-side, emerging economies have much to gain in improving the mechanisms for universal access.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that while technology can facilitate transformation, and even integration, it does not necessarily result in either. A government can establish networks and hand out devices en masse and still see few or no results if patients are reluctant to put these advances to use, or the data remains in a “walled garden” within the healthcare system.

However, little by little, economies – both emerging and developed – are striving towards a greater integrated care infrastructure. How much more perceived progress various countries have made towards that goal will be revealed in subsequent editions of report.