The Covid-19 pandemic has shed new light on a huge problem facing American healthcare: crucial information is spread out across a vast array of different institutions. This mess contributes to medical mistakes and has major economic ramifications, not just for individuals but for corporations and investors as well.
For example, look at one of the most populated counties in America, Harris County in Texas, which includes Houston. A few months into the pandemic, the county’s public health department “became overwhelmed when one laboratory sent a large batch of test results, spraying hundreds of pages all over the floor,” the New York Times reported. The Times added that the United States “keeps running into problems caused by its fragmented health system, a jumble of old and new technology, and data standards that don’t meet epidemiologists’ needs.”
Patients’ histories, potential allergies, data about the communities they live in, and much more information are not readily available at a medical provider’s fingertips. So it’s no wonder that outside of the pandemic, researchers say “medical errors are a serious public health problem and a leading cause of death.” One of the factors behind that is a lack of information. In a study published this year, three researchers noted that, “Providing real-time patient information, medication profiles, laboratory values, drug information, and documentation reduces errors.”
Fortunately, big change seems to be on the horizon. Accenture found recently that two-thirds of healthcare executives say their organizations will be operating with cloud technology within the next year, and 96% say they’ll do so within three years. Among the benefits: “Patient interactions will be simpler and smarter as clinicians gain access to timely data and actionable information, freeing them from time-consuming administrative tasks.”
Moving information into the cloud, a more accessible system, is a first step. After years of working on this problem, I’ve come to see three central challenges that must be tackled.
First, there is an overwhelming amount of data available. Because providers in different medical systems have long kept their own separate records, data collection on any patient can involve enormous numbers of records, many of which duplicate information. Meanwhile, some of the information is outdated, such as records taken before a patient experienced a disease, illness or injury that changed their medical situation.
Healthcare providers are often very busy rushing from patient to patient, another result of an economically troubled healthcare system. (As a senior executive of the American Academy of Family Physicians put it, “the economics of our healthcare system are horrifying.” And that was before the pandemic.) Doctors simply can’t piece through screen after screen of data to find all the information that might be relevant.
There’s also little to no order or organization in the data that providers, patients, and payers (insurance companies) may need at any moment. For example, information about a patient’s history of surgical operations, allergies, reactions to various medications, family history, environmental exposure and much more are spread out far and wide, and not synthesized.
Without a way to instantly see all relevant information on a certain topic, providers are left somewhat in the dark.
Healthcare providers (doctors, nurses, and others) are not statisticians. Tossing tons of charts and data at them is not enough. They need a holistic understanding of a patient.
I went into this field because I saw this gaping hole in the medical system. I also knew that solutions are possible. New technologies allow for a powerful transformation. Artificial Intelligence can not only gather all this data, but also categorize and synthesize it into digestible, understandable information. Data visualizations, predictive analytics, and other tools can allow care providers an instant, interactive look at a patient’s health and history and help alert them to pertinent information.
Nearly all healthcare executives (92%) say “their organization’s ability to generate business value will increasingly be based on the limitations and opportunities of their technology architecture,” the Accenture survey found. These companies alone offer opportunities to investors.
But upgrading healthcare technology has a financial impact far beyond just the companies themselves. Studies show that improvements in health can lead to an increase in GDP. In fact, as Brookings puts it, the healthcare sector “is in many ways the most consequential part of the United States economy.” Healthcare expenditures as a share of GDP have been rising for decades, without better health outcomes to match the expenses. By updating technology, we can take a big step toward reversing this trend.
As we work to emerge from this pandemic, we must use every tool at our disposal to advance our healthcare system and the economy. With new technology in place, we can do both, building a stronger future.
Tashfeen Suleman is cofounder and CEO of CloudMedx. Based in Palo Alto, California, CloudMedx is transforming healthcare delivery using Artificial Intelligence, giving patients, providers and payers the information they need to ensure the best care, avoid mistakes, and save money.