• COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in Latin America’s health systems that make them vulnerable to future health crises.
  • Some countries in the region are embracing a data-driven approach to healthcare – showing it's possible to build a more sustainable model.
  • By relying on real-world evidence and data, policymakers can make informed decisions that respond to the needs of their populations.

While health systems across Latin America continue to try to balance the increasing burden of COVID-19, and the needs of patients with other conditions, we must urgently prepare for what’s ahead and build resilient models that can respond effectively to the post-pandemic health challenges.

The deficiencies that have come to light amidst the pandemic will only be cemented further if we do not change our approach to health in the region, leaving us in a vulnerable position when facing potential future crises. What would this picture look like? It’s not positive: a lack of proper equipment and trained professionals in place; an overwhelming strain on health systems; longer wait times and delays in diagnosis and treatment; and, ultimately, a worse outlook for patients.

We need to future-proof healthcare, working toward a more sustainable model where health systems are capable of meeting the needs of their populations without compromising their ability to confront a health crisis. Embracing personalized healthcare, an approach to care commonly known as data-driven healthcare, lays the path to make this possible, delivering value for both patients and health systems.

Personalized healthcare: the next frontier for better lives

I remember when I began my career more than 25 years ago, cancer was just one disease. Now we know there are around 250 different types of cancer, and that means we cannot treat them all the same. Thanks to advances in science and technology, we can better understand the characteristics of a disease and develop more effective, targeted therapies for patients. By collecting and analyzing the real-world data around how patients respond to these solutions, we can match other patients with similar characteristics to the treatments that offer the best potential outcome. What’s more, this data can also help to identify populations at risk and ensure early screenings. This is the essence of personalized healthcare, and it’s the path toward improving people’s lives sustainably.

For health systems in Latin America, the need to optimize the use of limited resources has never been so urgent. Current models try to achieve this by focusing on cost savings and short-term results, and while that may provide some short-term benefits, it cannot sustain the ongoing – and growing – needs of the population. In this context, data is a valuable tool to understand what interventions work best, for whom and when, so that resources are not wasted on treatments or services that simply will not provide benefits to patients. At the same time, using data to support prevention efforts also helps significantly reduce overall costs for health systems.

When it comes to strengthening healthcare, more investment is not always best or possible. That is why, relying on data to make informed decisions means the resources that are available can be used more effectively and patients can receive the best care possible. In this way, personalized healthcare enables an “everybody wins” scenario.

What we need to accelerate progress in Latin America

Implementing personalized healthcare requires many factors to be in place to ensure it is viable at every point of the care continuum, from the initial research and development stage to the individual treatment decision-making. Today, there are wide gaps among countries in Latin America in terms of how prepared they are to make personalized healthcare a reality, but understanding where these gaps are is a valuable step toward closing them effectively.

Figure 1: Personalised Health ranked across Latin America.
Figure 1: Personalised Health ranked across Latin America.
Image: Roche.

The Personalised Health Index, a tool that assesses 10 health systems across Latin America, provides insight into how close they are to a future of personalized healthcare by looking at key building blocks that enable its implementation. The data gives us a clear picture of the landscape in the region. There is still much work to be done, but there is progress underway that countries in the region can learn from.

On average, Latin America performs best in personalized technologies, such as devices, applications and reimbursement structures that help drive personalized healthcare; however, the areas of planning, organization and delivery of health services were the lowest performers across the region. While there are clear deficits, certain countries stand out for best practices that can serve as a point of reference for advancing improvements in others.

Health and healthcare

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).

In Costa Rica, for example, a robust data infrastructure along with a national strategy for electronic health records supports a more interconnected system. In Uruguay, a strong digital foundation and an increased use of telemedicine in hospitals makes care more efficient and has been valuable in managing the pandemic. And in Brazil, an information exchange strategy enables cross-border data transfers and patients’ rights to access their data. These factors facilitate communication among healthcare institutions throughout the patient journey, reduce duplications and unnecessary interventions, and help improve the overall patient experience.

While most health policy decisions are made at a local level, high-level impact requires that countries across Latin America work together to learn from each other, scale what works and change what doesn’t. We have already come a long way, but we need collaborative efforts that involve the public and private sectors and civil society, each bringing their expertise and capabilities, to continue making progress.

The Personalised Health Index provides a solid base to work from, serving as a valuable policy tool to drive action by helping decision makers understand where it is needed most. Over time, this assessment will prove to be even more valuable, as it will help track progress and identify trends that can move us closer to a personalized future of healthcare, faster.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that future-proofing healthcare is non-negotiable, and embracing personalized healthcare is an essential piece. With more data at our disposal than ever before, we can inform solutions that help create a sustainable future for health. This is a future where health systems can care for the entire population; where doctors can provide more personalized treatment; and where all patients have access to safe and effective care that allows them to live longer and healthier.