• Highly individualized medicine is now within reach, making a whole new approach to healthcare possible.
  • We highlight three examples that support, rather than replace, the real-world contact between patients and doctors using digital tools.
  • Digitalization in healthcare requires multi-stakeholder collaboration between medical institutions, companies and governments.

Healthcare is undergoing a digital revolution. Big Data, mobile devices and other innovations are opening up new frontiers in medicine, a trend that has become especially visible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Smartphone applications are tracking the spread of the virus and artificial intelligence (AI) is helping doctors search people’s lungs for signs of the pneumonia it can cause.

Looking beyond the pandemic, digitalization in healthcare is expected to improve a broad range of outcomes, from the prevention and treatment of disease to nursing care. It will allow national health systems to use resources more efficiently, making them more effective and sustainable as societies age.

Making the most of the digital revolution will require a fundamental conceptual shift. Most health systems are geared toward providing uniform care to large numbers of people – aiming for what the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham called “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

It’s an approach that made sense in our analogue past, when creating tailor-made treatments for every individual was difficult and expensive. But digitalization is changing the game. Highly individualized medicine is now within reach, making possible a whole new approach to healthcare. We call it “the greatest happiness of the greatest diversity.”

At the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, we’ve been working to improve the use of data and technology in healthcare. We believe that shifting from a one-size-fits-all approach to one more focused on diversity is crucial to maximizing health and wellbeing. The “greatest happiness of the greatest diversity” is not an idea for the distant future; the movement to make it a reality has already begun.

What would a data-driven, diversity-focused approach to healthcare look like?

For a start, it would be more inclusive. A health system that responds to individual lifestyles, disease profiles, and nursing-care needs is one that leaves fewer people behind.

With advances in data, AI, and other technologies, the potential for bespoke healthcare keeps expanding while the costs keep falling, opening up a range of possibilities – from the ability to design the most effective prevention and treatment plans for each individual, to better accommodation of personal preferences with regard to risk or medical interventions.

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).

What are the barriers to creating this kind of healthcare system?

For a start bridging information gaps in healthcare requires fusing the digital and analogue worlds. This is both a challenge and area with great potential. Taiwan, for example, has been one of the most successful jurisdictions in containing COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, Taiwanese authorities leveraged the power of National Health Cards, cashless payments and the universal health insurance system to ease medical supply bottlenecks and get masks to people who needed them.

But the digital tools involved were used disproportionately by the young; among the elderly, only 40% were able to purchase masks. Only when the authorities provided specific additional information to elderly people – directing groups of older people to go to particular pharmacies at particular times, for instance – did that proportion rise.

Which companies are succeeding using this hybrid approach?

At the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, we reviewed several initiatives by companies involved in healthcare that succeeded precisely though this hybrid approach in our report, Healthcare and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Realizing the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest diversity’.

  • Takeda Pharmaceutical: Japan’s largest Pharmaceutical company. In a pilot project, Takeda used wearable devices and telemedicine to monitor Parkinson's disease patients. As a result, Takeda discovered the possibility of reducing the burden of disease management and hospital visits.
  • Salesforce: the cloud-based software giant. It improved operational efficiency and patient engagement for healthcare providers by centralizing digital patient data.
  • SOMPO Holdings: a Japanese insurance group. Leveraged data to address staffing shortages and is currently developing more personalized services in nursing care.

All of these efforts had something in common: they used digital tools to support real-world contact between patients and doctors, or the elderly and caregivers, rather than to replace that contact. The idea was to strengthen and complement traditional “analogue” services using data and technology. This hybrid approach allowed health providers to respond to individual needs and social challenges in ways that would have been impossible through analogue or digital means alone.

Maximizing the potential of multi-stakeholder initiatives

Technological advances are blurring boundaries between industries. Achieving “the greatest happiness of the greatest diversity” in healthcare means ascertaining and responding to the needs of every individual across a range of medical and wellbeing outcomes. That can only be accomplished through wide-ranging collaboration among medical institutions, companies and governments.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration was important to the success of all three initiatives we reviewed in our study. We believe innovation is driven by transcending the limits and perspectives of individual industries, rethinking traditional networks, leveraging every businesses strengths and maximizing cooperation.