- COVID has demonstrated that health visits can be executed successfully through telehealth.
- Having integrated health data has been integral to aspects of the pandemic response, including the tracking and distribution of billions of vaccine doses.
- The pandemic has motivated tech workers to bring their skills to the work of improving human health.
Since the start of the AI and data science revolution a few decades ago, healthcare has consistently lagged other sectors in capitalizing on the power of these technologies, which could be used to improve human health. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare weaknesses in health systems and healthcare approaches as the world works to cope with the dual challenge of a global pandemic and ongoing patient needs.
The pandemic has also brought us to a unique moment where we are learning at scale that data science and digital technology can improve human health in powerful ways. This is digital healthcare’s moment, and there are clear steps the international community can take to meet it.
First, the time for widespread telehealth adoption is now. While data have long suggested that large percentages of health visits can be executed successfully through telehealth, COVID-19 has brought that fact to bear. While it is concerning that outpatient care during the pandemic has been disrupted dramatically – at one time 40% of Americans postponed getting medical care due to COVID-19, and 2.4 million patients in the UK were waiting for cancer screenings, treatment or tests – global and local systems responded as quickly as they could and stood up telehealth models out of necessity.
Rather than reverting to previous care models when the pandemic subsides, we should maintain these shifts to telehealth – including remote monitoring for clinical trials – as sustained elements in healthcare and build them out further.
This will create stability for patients in the short and long-term and will increase preparedness for any future health crises, helping avoid the disruptions patients today are forced to endure. This evolution requires a supportive policy framework, including investment in interoperable data infrastructure, coherent and consistent legislation, such as on data protection, and well-regulated networks – networks that support and facilitate cooperation and the exchange of health data and services between countries.
Relatedly, through policy and practice we must improve the standardization and interoperability of Electronic Health Records (EHRs). Multiple factors, including misaligned data structures and slow uptake, prevent societies from benefitting from the increased healthcare quality and cost savings EHRs could make possible. The pandemic has illuminated some of the related benefits, as having integrated health data has been integral to aspects of the COVID-19 response, including the tracking and distribution of billions of vaccine doses around the world.
Second, advancements in digital healthcare hold tremendous promise to bring much needed care and medical innovation to low and middle-income countries, and ultimately to the most underserved patient populations on the planet. These communities and countries not only have the most to gain at the intersection of data science, tech and health, but many are also outpacing the rest of the world in adopting and scaling digital care models.
For example, in Nigeria, an AI-driven smartphone app is already being used to accurately diagnose birth asphyxia, which often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Diagnosing birth asphyxia has historically been a challenge, particularly in remote regions, given traditional measures of diagnosis require access to an array of special equipment and medical experts – but the accessibility of this technology can change the dynamics and make a remarkable difference for babies and families.
In Brazil, we’ve seen one of the first integrated countrywide AI platforms predict outbreaks of dengue. The platform can predict outbreaks 30 days ahead of time with an 80% accuracy rate while recommending where and how much insecticide, larvicide, and human resources should be deployed. During the pandemic, the platform has been used in Brazil, the Philippines, and Malaysia to help aid COVID-19 tracing and case detection. The opportunities to reimagine global health with digital solutions are boundless.
Finally, in addition to the proven positive outcomes digital healthcare can affect, the pandemic has motivated a rising tide of tech talents to be interested in bringing their ambitions and skills to the work of improving human health. Research recently conducted shows that 86% of tech talents agree that healthcare’s digital moment is now, and 72% are more attracted to the industry than they were before the pandemic.
We must bring together the best in science with the best in tech to tackle the greatest health challenges of our time, and we have more data scientists, technology experts, and sector leaders interested in joining this effort than ever before. Now is the right moment for tech talent to combine their skills with their passion for health and join one of the most purpose-driven efforts there is. Across industry, governments, academia, and NGOs, we must continue to urgently explore and open up new areas for innovation and partnership.
How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?
The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.
But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.
The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.
The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.
The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).
The international community is at the tipping point of a new era in health – an era in which we have the opportunity to embrace digital healthcare and dramatically improve human health on a global scale. In the face of a devastating pandemic that has rattled the world, we’ve brought within our reach the right technological advances, the right talent, and a renewed sense of commitment to meet this moment.
If we come together around a shared purpose to shape a healthier future in our time and for generations to come, we can ensure the story of the COVID-19 pandemic ends with a bold global movement that embraces digital healthcare. And we can ensure we come out on the other side of this pandemic with stronger health systems and a refuelled, refocused, cross-sector collective of leaders that will prove once again, as our species has for centuries, that science-based progress rises to the occasion when humanity is most in need.