The grubby inconveniences and friction of current healthcare delivery, where thousands of moving parts judder along, are cleansed and the noiseless efficiency of robots and technology result in disease-free longevity. It’s a pleasing dreamscape. And it could happen.
You can crack genetic codes with abandon and make algorithms assemble but the future could still be bleak, painful and financially ruinous if we don’t finesse public perception of health.
This is where the tectonic plates of society are grinding away at each other. Healthcare systems have reached such maturity and capability that a huge part of the public now expects their physicians to heal virtually anything with a pill, potion or injection. There is a feeling that society has, to an extent, switched off its self-care receptors and come to expect the medical community to repair any faults.
At the same time, healthcare systems can dip into a rhythm of repeating poor, unfocussed performance.
These are uncomfortable truths but healthcare needs soul-searching as well as laboratory testing to emerge into anything like the world of our dreams.
The UK’s NHS is a prime example: launched in 1948 to provide universal healthcare free at the point of delivery, it has been a beacon of good practice and humanity. But, like systems around the world, it is struggling and the government’s health service ombudsman recently warned that it had a ‘defensive culture’ and poor co-ordination to learn from its mistakes.
The doom-laden facts are sobering – the World Health Organisation stated in 2005 that 80% of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes could be avoided if common lifestyle factors were eliminated – but societal movement is lagging behind.
The Philips 2016 Future Health Index echoes the need to accelerate change as by 2050 the proportion of the world’s population aged over 60 will nearly double to 22%. Its research highlights that almost three-quarters of patients and healthcare professionals (72% and 73%, respectively) agree that individuals are fully responsible for preventing poor health.
Translating that statistic into genuine change will take a lot of targeted education. That’s where governments have a responsibility to act with panache so the message of what is possible can emerge from the fog of failings and gloom.
Although prevention has been a difficult message to spread, healthcare technology now has the opportunity to be a guiding light.
Providing wearables that promote, and subjectively reward, healthier lifestyles are part of a radical, but attainable, future. Powerful diagnostics could single out conditions and define personalised treatment plans in a fraction of the time it takes to travel through hospitals with their clunky mechanisms of alternating brilliance and inefficiency.
This is where the dreaming ends and the reality starts. The technology is already with us, scientists are unlocking the dark recesses of diseases such as cancer and the potential to combine these advances is becoming clear.
A recent challenge by the UK’s King’s Fund research think tank based in the UK asked for ‘What if…’ essays about the future of health. The winner created a landscape where most care was delivered at home or in the community. The thought-provoking essay brings an intriguing lens to what could happen if technology, planning and public behavior can be aligned.
Sue Brown, chief executive of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance, wrote about increased investment in health and well being, adding: “the real trick…. was to stop people needing to go to hospital in the first place.”
The good news is that this is already happening across the healthcare spectrum – physician appointments can be booked online, advanced diagnostics can identify individual cancer types rather than broad groups, lifestyle changes are easier with wearable technology and most conditions can now be monitored at home. On top of this, artificial intelligence gives us the opportunity for precision research and delivery systems that learn and adapt rather than repeat mistakes.
Smart use of patient data and treatment trends – big data – will help a new generation of thinking. With privacy safeguards in place, it will give researchers untold riches to work with and allow patients to have a say, and therefore a more dynamic interest, in their treatment and health.
Including patients at the heart of developments will go a long way to steering healthcare systems away from the rocks.
The technology is improving by the moment and the markers are positive. The consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts a ‘dramatic market expansion’ with Artificial Intelligence providing the capability to cut treatment costs by 50% and improve outcomes from 30% to 40% in coming years.
Making sure the public are part of the healthcare revolution is now as important as the technological wizardry. Trust and safety are hard-earned concepts and hard decisions will be needed to release the scientific and technological potential. It is also crucial that healthcare retains its caring nature as a fundamental component of its DNA.
It will not be realized overnight and there will be bumps but the future of our healthcare dreams can become a reality.