Democratization of Healthcare: An Evolving Trend Driven By Cutting-Edge Technology

We have stepped on to a fascinating era of yet another disruptive innovation in a newly carved out space of the healthcare domain.

Such initiatives are driven by path breaking ideas, which are being translated into reality with the application of cutting-edge technology. All these are aimed at providing a plethora of unique healthcare related solutions in the cyberspace to various stakeholders, especially to patients through inexpensive smartphones of various types.

Although the process has just begun, but is moving at a rapid pace. In virtually no time, as it were, it is showing a great potential of delivering more accurate and affordable healthcare solutions to a large number of the population globally, particularly in the developing nations.

‘Democratization of Healthcare’: 

The ‘patient empowerment’ of such kind, with technology enabled the power of personalized healthcare knowledge and information in an organized manner, has been termed as ‘The Democratization of Healthcare.’

The critical point to ponder, therefore, whether this fast developing state of art technological advancement has the potential of delivering a novel and much affordable process of disease treatment and management, in the real world. As it happens, the new paradigm would shift the focus of key stakeholders from doctors to patients, in a genuine sense, and almost irreversibly.

In this article, I shall deliberate on this wonderful emerging scenario.

A recent reiteration raises hope:

The following reiteration of one of the largest and most reputed tech giant of the world raises general hope that this process would soon come to fruition:

‘The democratization potential of healthcare interests most of us, as the injustice of fantastic healthcare available in some parts of the world, and others suffering needlessly.”

The above profound comment was made on a radio show – ‘Conversations on Health Care’, by none other than the Chief Operating Officer, Jeff Williams of Apple Inc. on January 4, 2016 and was reported accordingly by ‘appleinsider.com’ on January 06, 2016.

Jeff Williams also indicated in his talk, how smartphone technology can be harnessed for therapeutic purpose in disease treatment, as well. Citing an example, he said, detecting autism at an early age is a key to future treatment, as doctors can intervene – albeit to a limited degree – as long as the brain is still developing. 

He referred to a study that found not just the potential in app-based smartphone screening of children, but can even go much further by delivering therapy and treatment.

The rapid progress of technology in this direction is very real, as ‘Apple’ and other smartphone health app developers are stretching the commoditization of computer technology to serve health sciences. In not so distant future, with relatively inexpensive smartphones and supporting health apps – the doctors and researchers can deliver better standards of living in severely under-served areas like Africa, where there are only 55 trained specialists in autism, Williams said.

Triggers a key shift in focus: 

As I said before, unleashing the power of technology in healthcare solutions through smartphones will bring a fundamental shift in focus of all concerned, from medical doctors to ordinary patients. 

This transformation seems to be rather imminent now, as equipped with detailed knowledge of various types of individual health and disease related information through their smartphones, the patients would position themselves in the driver’s seat, demanding more for affordable treatment of diseases. 

Dr. Eric Topol, the author of the book titled, “The Patient Will See You Now”, thus very appropriately said, “MDs will no longer be considered ‘medical deities’, but rather professionals with whom patients will consult to get the proper treatment on the path of least resistance.” 

Consequently, the pharma players and other related service providers would require to ‘walk the talk’ by being ‘patient centric’ in the true sense, and definitely not by using this profound term, as one of the tools of their mostly self-serving, advocacy campaigns.

Empowering patients:

As Dr. Eric Topol said, smartphone applications that can monitor throughout the day, such as, heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, take and interpret an electrocardiogram, capture X-rays and analyze ultrasound, have the potential to reduce patient visits to doctors, cut costs, speed up the pace of care and give more power to patients. He emphasized though, digital apps won’t replace physicians. The patients would still be seeing doctors, but the doctor-patient relationship will ultimately be radically altered.

As an illustration, it is worth mentioning here, that taking a significant step forward in this direction, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has already approved ECG apps by for consumers, which have been validated in many clinical studies.

Examples of Smartphone Apps for patients:

Smartphone apps are now available for different user segments. In this section, I shall focus only on patient-centered apps capable of performing a wide array of functions, such as managing chronic disease, lifestyle management, smoking cessation and even self-diagnosis.

I am quoting below just a few of these interesting apps, as reported in an article published by ‘The Online Journal of Public Health Informatics (OJPHI)’ on February 5, 2014:

A. For diabetic patients, over 80 apps on the Android platform alone, offer a variety of functions. These include self-monitoring blood glucose recording, medication or insulin logs, and prandial insulin dose calculators.

Yet another diabetes intervention app integrated communication between patients and a healthcare provider. Here, the patient would log fasting blood sugars, daily eating behaviors, medication compliance, physical activity and emotions into a mobile online diary. A remote therapist with access to these diaries would then formulate personalized feedback to the patient.

‘WellDoc’ is reportedly one such company that has already received approval of the US FDA for its mobile-enabled diabetes management program, and is being paid for by health insurers as they would for a pharmaceutical product.

B. For smoking cessation and alcohol addiction apps are also available. At least 47 iPhone apps for smoking cessation and another one called – ‘A-CHESS’ (Alcohol Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System) helps preventing relapse in alcoholic dependency and harnesses mobile technology to improve treatment and motivation.

C. For asthma and allergic rhinitis patients, an app called ‘m.Carat’, developed at Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade do Porto, Portugal, , helps recording their exacerbations, triggers, symptoms, medications, lung function tests and visits to the doctor or the hospital. The users of this app can also receive disease education, medication information, task notifications, and synchronize records with an online database to better control their symptoms.

D. For psychiatric patients, available smartphone apps offer benefits of ambulatory monitoring, that randomly prompts the patient to self-report psychotic symptoms multiple times throughout the day.

E. For sickle cell disease another app allows patients access to an online diary for recording pain and other symptoms.

F. For patients with dementia, ‘iWander’ app assists the affected individuals with daily living, by providing audible prompts to direct the patient home, sending notifications and GPS coordinates to caretakers, or by calling local 911 (US emergency) services.

G. For HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and STD around 55 unique smartphone apps are available. These are used for education, prevention, testing and to provide other resources.

Self-diagnosis without a medical visit:

The above article also states that patients may even use smartphone apps to attempt self-diagnosis without a medical visit. Patients with a camera-enabled smartphone can use apps to take photographs of skin lesions and send these to a remote server for computer analysis and/or review by a board certified dermatologist. However, such apps are still not without their pitfalls, which are being addressed by the scientists, expeditiously.

Nevertheless, informed debate has already started in search of an appropriate direction for self-diagnosis with the help of robust smartphone apps, without any in-person medical visits.

Need for Regulatory control and certification of health apps:

I hasten to add, all such smartphone health apps should not be allowed to come to the market without stringent regulatory control and a well thought out the certification process.

As in the United States, where the health apps are being assessed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), in India too the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) or any other appropriate and designated authority should approve and certify all such smartphone health apps, before the market launch.

‘Trust deficit’ poses a critical challenge to pharma industry:

Since the health apps opportunity is new, and still in its evolutionary stage, pharma industry, in general, does not seem to have fully accepted yet, that the process of ‘Democratization of Healthcare’ has already commenced. I reckon, the progress in this direction is unstoppable now. Nevertheless, many drug companies apparently continue to prefer sticking to the same proven path that had fetched enormous success for them in the past and, of course, also its associated business models.

Besides health apps, the democratization process of healthcare includes other technological platforms too, such as, social media and video communications, which have started to bring healthcare into patients’ homes. To be successful in a situation like this, gaining ‘patient trust’ has become more important today than ever before, for all concerned. 

Unfortunately, the drug companies, generally speaking, continue suffering from an increasing ‘trust deficit’ of the key stakeholders. This has been vindicated by a September 9, 2013 study of Makovsky Health, which found:

  • Pharma websites continued to rank low in terms of traffic, with just 9 percent of Americans visit them for health information.
  • WebMD is the most frequented online source for healthcare information (53 percent)
  • Almost a fourth of consumers (24 percent) use at least one or a combination of social media channels – including YouTube video channels, Facebook sites, blogs, and Twitter feeds with links to other resources – to seek healthcare information  

The writing on the wall:

Some major global pharma players apparently have clearly seen the writing on the wall, and started collaborating with the developers of various types of digital health apps.

Quoting from the May 02, 2014 edition of ‘MobileHealthNews”, I am citing below, just as an illustration, the initiatives taken in this space by some of the drug majors: 

Pfizer (2014) had backed startup Akili in the development of a mobile game to help diagnose patients with Alzheimer’s. The game could also be used in the treatment or detection of ADHD and autism, among other conditions.

Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary, Janssen Healthcare Innovations (2013), launched the new version of its free Care4Today medication reminder app and platform – Care4Today Mobile Health Manager 2.0. It has also overhauled Care4Today medication adherence app.

Sanofi US (2013) and the Prostate Cancer Foundation announced the creation of Prost8Care, an SMS system to help prostate cancer patients and their families understand treatment processes.

AstraZeneca (2013) announced a pilot with Exco InTouch to help patients suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), with mobile and online tools. 

Sanofi’s (2012) iBGStar device became the first US FDA cleared iPhone-enabled blood glucose meter.

GlaxoSmithKline (2012) offered a free asthma management app called MyAsthma, for iPhone and Android users. The app’s core offering is an Asthma Control Test (ACT), which is a simple 30-second test providing users with an index score of how well they are managing their asthma overall.

The potential in India:

In India, ‘Democratization of Healthcare’ is believed to be more broad based, with a third of all Indian mobile users expected to own a smartphone by 2017.

This is vindicated by the Press Release of Telecom Regulator TRAI, India, pharma, drug, playersy Authority of India (TRAI) of December 30, 2015. It states, the Wireless Tele-density in India is 79.39 as on October 31, 2015. The shares of urban and rural wireless subscribers were 57.61 percent and 42.39 percent, respectively, during the same period.

Conclusion:

The process of ‘Democratization of Healthcare’ is gaining momentum with the digital health app developers flooring the gas pedal. Even the global tech giant – Apple, has expressed its support and vow of taking rapid strides in this direction.

As this fascinating process unfolds, the final disease treatment decision, from various medical options available, is expected shift from doctors to patients, and may be their closest relatives. In tandem, patients would learn to take ownership of their physical and mental health conditions for disease prevention of various types, besides general fitness.

The patients, empowered with relevant digital information and knowledge, on their health status, including the pace of disease progression, would play a pivotal role not just in reducing disease burden, but also in making overall cost of individual healthcare more affordable. Additionally, access to healthcare, especially in the developing world like India and in its hinterland, will be improved significantly.

Digital apps are not just limited to patients’ use, these are being developed with equal speed for doctors, diagnostic centers, and clinical trials, just to name a few. All these would substantially reduce healthcare costs and add speed to various disease treatments.

In this golden pathway, there are some thorns too, mostly in the form of important regulatory issues, which need to be sorted out, expeditiously. Increasing ‘Trust Deficit’ of stakeholders on the drug companies is yet another hurdle, especially when the primary focus of all would shift from doctors to patients. However, it appears, the pharma players will eventually have no other choice, but to willy-nilly mold themselves accordingly, primarily for survival and thereafter progress.   

As I see it today, the fast evolving trend of ‘Democratization of Healthcare’, driven by cutting-edge technology, is virtually unstoppable now. The only question is how soon will it happen?                                                                          

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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