• Global healthcare faces challenges including lack of access to basic services and staff shortages.
  • Digital transformation of healthcare, such as the use of remote 5G technology, AI and wearables, can help offset these issues.
  • Technology companies can help create a more equitable society by developing solutions that improve healthcare performance and outcomes.

Digital transformation is changing the face of every industry, including healthcare. From a lack of access to basic healthcare services in many places around the world to a general staffing shortage that's expected to reach 18 million by 2030, there are plenty of gaps that technology like 5G, cloud and AI are primed to offset.

However, to effectively use these technologies, we first need to fully understand the challenges that the healthcare sector experiences from multiple perspectives, including patients, healthcare professionals, and management.

And that’s something I’ve been spending a lot of time on since the pandemic began stretching global healthcare resources to breaking point: visiting hospitals, talking to healthcare professionals, and attending industry events.

Remote doesn’t mean out of reach

With a large portion of face-to-face visits off the table during the pandemic, healthcare providers have had to look for new ways to interact with non-emergency patients. Doctors have been able to consult patients remotely, diagnose conditions, and even review X-rays and CT scans in high definition – often collaboratively with other experts in remote locations.

In turn, people have become more accepting of remote healthcare services and telemedicine, with Ernest Young reporting that 54% of patients with chronic diseases now accept remote healthcare.

That’s a welcome trend: research shows that 30% of hospital visits from patients with common chronic conditions are in fact unnecessary, tie-up resources, and cost the industry upwards of $8.3 billion per year. For patients, the online approach means better and safer access, less wasted time, and lower costs.

The ability to see a doctor regardless of location has helped democratize healthcare access for many people in underserved areas.

Solutions for emergency response

Much like connectivity sits at the core of remote healthcare, it can drive up the efficacy of emergency response during the “golden hour”, the time when effective medical intervention can mean the difference between life and death.

Historically, it’s been impossible to share data between ambulances, A&E departments, and experts in a way that enables a real-time response.

A 5G-powered remote emergency channel that links to a command centre gives doctors equipped with VR glasses the same view as if they were actually inside the ambulance. Doctors receive data on a patient’s vital signs in real-time on a large screen in the command centre, including the patient's ECG, ultrasound image, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature.

The patient's medical history can be quickly established, doctors can guide paramedics in the ambulance, and patients can be admitted to hospital immediately after arrival with their details and condition known. This isn’t something for the future – many hospitals in China are already using this solution.

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).

Speed and precision with AI

Alongside remote technologies and 5G, AI is emerging as a key technology in the tech-powered healthcare armory. It’s been instrumental, for example, along with the rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the large-scale virtual screening for potential drugs and shortening the simulation time from one month to less than one day.

Equally, AI can offset a shortage of specialists, such as ultrasound experts who can interpret echocardiograms to diagnose heart disease. A single expert can diagnose just 40 cases per day, which for patients translates into a waiting time of nearly one week. By training algorithms in small-sample data for 10 heart conditions, we’ve developed the B Ultrasound solution that can speed up the diagnosis process by between five to 10 times.

Proactive healthcare with wearables

In addition to B Ultrasound, since 2018 we’ve been working with more than 80 hospitals in China on the world's largest heart-health research project. With the consent of the research subjects, we’ve collected anonymized data from nearly 3.1 million people. Our smart wearable devices can collect signals from users in real-time, identify abnormal heart rhythms with AI, and upload the results to Huawei Research. Cloud AI then pushes information about high-risk people to the remote medical management platform of the hospitals we’re working with, so that healthcare workers can take appropriate measures.

For physicians, wearables and apps overcome the challenges of data acquisition and analysis, with AI able to analyze massive data through continuous monitoring. Over the past two and a half years, more than 10,000 people were screened for suspected atrial fibrillation (AF) – an abnormally fast heartbeat. More than 4,400 people were diagnosed with AF, with an accuracy of 94%.

Currently, Huawei's smart wearable devices can also monitor blood oxygen and generate electrocardiograms. We expect to release a medical-grade blood pressure watch by the end of the year.

Smart hospital management

To maximize the effectiveness of the technologies to empower doctors, and improve the patient experience, hospital management must also be smart.

Open, connected digital platforms can achieve the real-time visual management of operations and resources in hospitals, from patient flow and doctor workloads to bed occupancy and medical device use. This in turn can enable hospital management to plan and improve resource use and make decisions based on full datasets, underpinning overall healthcare performance and outcomes.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve witnessed the dedication and bravery of healthcare workers, as I think much of the world’s population has. However, with a chronic shortage of medical staff unfolding and with half the world’s population still lacking access to basic healthcare services, we need to develop solutions if we are to move forward as an equitable society where everyone has room to fulfill their potential.

In healthcare, technology companies can make a real difference – and I believe that’s something worth committing to.