Will patients benefit from the health sector tech revolution?

Tech innovation is transforming the health sector — but what will this really mean for patients in a world of limited human resources and rising costs?

Do Better Team

“Every human being has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” When taken at face value, this definitive statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) leaves little room for misinterpretation.  

But with the increasingly rapid advancement of technology revolutionizing the health sector, the meaning takes on more nuance. Leaving aside for a moment the impact of tech innovation, one only has to look at the United States to acknowledge that the “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” carries vastly different meanings from one person with comprehensive health insurance to another without the financial means to buy a course of antibiotics. 

The highest attainable standards of health continue to vary significantly from one country to another

Extend this theory globally, and the “highest attainable standards of physical and mental health” continue to vary significantly from one country to another. The global WHO survey on universal health care and cancer shows that only 39 per cent of participating countries covered the basics of cancer management as part of their financed core health services for all citizens. In the UK, once considered the exemplar of free-at-the-point-of-access healthcare provision, 1.2 million people were waiting for mental health treatment in 2023. 

Within this juxtaposition of scientific progress and systemic inequality, how will tech innovation revolutionize the health sector — and will the revolution mean standards are equalized? 

Lack of resources

Manel Peiró is the director of the Institute for Healthcare Management at Esade. In July last year, speaking at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Health Technology Sector in Madrid, Peiró highlighted the paradigm facing healthcare. 

“For some years now, the healthcare sector has been facing major challenges,” he told the conference. “There is a growing demand for health care services, but insufficient resources provided by administrations.” 

And, while technology opens up a wide range of possibilities that have improved the availability and quality of healthcare, it doesn’t address this lack of resources which has resulted in the growing shortage of global health professionals.  

No amount of remote technology will replace the lack of trained professionals

“We need something more than technology to alleviate the great shortage of professionals in both medicine and nursing,” Peiró warns.  

“Medical teams may be able to work virtually to coordinate admission, discharge and medication with their patients online and drastically reduce the logistical impact of treatment. But no amount of remote technology will replace the lack of trained professionals

“At some point people need to be attended to in person. Doing a Teams or Zoom can help us, but it’s not the same as being present.” 

Cost v benefit

As health technology and scientific developments become increasingly specialized, their costs grow exponentially. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the use of digitalization in healthcare and enabled the growing use of online platforms for consultation.  

But at the other end of the health tech spectrum are the developments that are transforming the fundamentals of treatment and diagnosis.  

Synthetic biology
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According to Xavier Ferràs, associate dean of the Executive MBA at Esade, enabling technologies such as SynBio — a highly specialized combination of biology, genetics, programming and engineering — have been disrupting medical science since the early 1980s. 

Nonetheless, its applications are increasingly being expanded as the technology has matured, such as the synthesis of new drugs and therapies

Weighing down the options

For hospitals, the problem with the rapid advancement of technology isn’t just the cost of adoption; public healthcare contracts can be in place for many years, locking them into outdated equipment and preventing them from adopting new technologies. 

And according to Omar Rachedi, professor of the Department of Economics, Finance and Accounting at Esade, this can “considerably weigh down” the health technology sector.  

“With an appropriate approach, indexing public contracts to changes in the price of raw materials could offer a more stable and predictable framework for health technology companies, reduce uncertainty and promote sustainable growth in the sector,” he suggests.  

As health technology and scientific developments become increasingly specialized, their costs grow exponentially

But would such a solution allow small, local hospitals deliver to highly specialized personal care using ultra-high-tech expensive equipment? 

“There is no clear answer,” admits Manel Peiró. “Large university hospitals must have all specialities, but for those with a lower level of complexity it won’t be possible. Not everyone can have everything. And here is the obstacle: there is a lack of coordination between primary and specialized, making it difficult for them to work together.” 

Hospitals without borders?

The answer according to Deloitte is “a hospital without walls”. The consulting firm predicts many procedures will move away from the hospital environment, which will be preserved for highly specialized treatment facilitated by increasingly sophisticated health tech. 

Will this allow every individual to attain the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health? Or will it simply reinforce the fact that for some, standards are much higher than others

“With this transformation of the hospital, coordination work will be more important than ever,” advises Peiró.  “Someone has to organize all this activity of smaller and specialized centers, and there’s a lot of room for improvement.”  

According to the former Spanish minister of health José Manuel Miñones, these improvements are already taking shape.  

"Health technology is a fundamental pillar, so we must work on the efficient incorporation of health technology products to the system,” he told guests at Esade’s 2023 Annual Health Technology Conference. 

Describing ongoing projects such as the INVEAT Plan, the Digitalization Strategy of the SNS and the implementation of the Genomics Portfolio, Miñones concluded: "Investment in health technologies is committed and [the Spanish government] will allow them to take advantage of their full potential." 

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