By Rick Scurfield, President, NetApp APAC


In a recent article with The Business Times, I shared on how data has the ability to improve healthcare in Asia.


GPS trackers in the shoes of dementia patients to alert caregivers if they wander out of their safety zones; homes equipped with sensors and a video surveillance system to watch over the young and the elderly; wearable devices to remotely track any subnormal bodily function or activity and even to help predict falls among the elderly before they occur – these are no longer part of a pipe dream, and are, in reality, some examples of the use of technology in healthcare today.


In particular, with the demographic changes across Asia-Pacific, we are witnessing a corresponding rise in technology applications geared towards helping the elderly lead normal lives.


An ageing population with increasing life expectancy and a growing middle-class in the region has not only increased the overall demand for healthcare services, but also impacted the demand for hospitals. While global healthcare markets are forecast to grow at less than 6 per cent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2012 to 2018, the Asia-Pacific healthcare market is projected to expand at more than double this CAGR – at 12.8 per cent over the same period, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan.


This situation also means that healthcare costs are skyrocketing. The ability of patients to meet healthcare costs is greatly stretched. For instance, the 2014 Towers Watson Global Medical Trends Survey found that the cost of employee medical benefits in the region rose 8.8 per cent in 2013 and 9.3 per cent in 2014, higher than general wage increases. India showed one of the highest cost-rise trends at 11.2 per cent for 2014, while China estimated rates at 8.3 per cent, driven by employee demand for private healthcare as well as the expanding private insurance landscape. In Thailand, medical costs are expected to surge from 6.3 per cent in 2013 to 8.7 per cent in 2014.


Even the more developed healthcare markets in the region are not immune to the rising cost of providing medical benefits: Both Singapore and Hong Kong are consistently experiencing rises of 8-9 per cent.


Government intervention – by means of subsidies, compulsory provident funds, mandatory medical insurance and training – helps to alleviate the issue of cost and supply. Technology, however, is proving to be the best means to close the growing gap as a result of the inevitable shortage of healthcare facilities, lack of caregivers, unavailability of ubiquitous medical expertise, and the pressing need to vastly improve infrastructural and operational efficiencies.


Technology plays a big role in addressing the issues of productivity, access to expertise and lack of manpower in the healthcare sector in the region – as many cities seek to evolve into “smart” cities.


Role of technology


For instance, Big Data is enabling the industry to process large amounts of structured and unstructured data more efficiently than ever before, which allows medical researchers to more quickly identify connections, causes and effects particular to each disease.


We’re also seeing more opportunities with the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable devices to help patients manage chronic diseases.


Research by IDC reveals that by 2018, the global market for wearables will swell to almost 112 million units – a sixfold increase from 19 million units in 2014. With an estimated 9.1 billion IoT units installed worldwide as at end-2013, and IDC expecting this to grow at a 17.5 per cent CAGR to 28.1 billion in 2020, IoT seems a logical technology to open up the world of healthcare. We are already seeing IoT applied to reduce the cost of care, improve access, increase the quality and improve the efficiency of healthcare today.


For healthcare organisations, innovations such as wearables offer significant opportunities to improve patient outcomes and reduce infrastructure spending.

Across several countries in Asia-Pacific, we are seeing developments in wearable devices to help predict falls among the elderly before they occur. Besides helping patients, this has the potential to reduce the enormous cost burden for injuries that are caused by falls.


Wearable technology that provides real-time feedback on the wearer’s health alerts professionals and consumers alike to potential health risks before they become serious. Home scanners, such as Scanadu, allow self-diagnosis, helping to avoid a visit to the hospital for less serious ailments, as well as help hospitals prioritise treatments, relieving the pressure on time and space.


Devices linked to sensors and connected applications can provide a myriad of patient data for healthcare practitioners – especially when used to monitor an individual’s vital signs. This information can then be remotely fed to the patient’s healthcare provider. With this data on hand, doctors can offer the care people need without requiring them to make a physical trip to a clinic or hospital, effectively making medical expertise more available to more people.


Fundamental to any smart city initiative is connectivity. With home scanners, healthcare apps and dietary trackers linked to devices, IoT delivers a tidal wave of data for healthcare organisations. The diagnostic process itself is helped dramatically by the ability to access the the world’s pool of health knowledge and provide that to users via devices and the cloud.


Smart data


And with electronic health record (EHR) systems, caregivers can communicate and access patient information and status anywhere and anytime, to provide better quality of care across geographical boundaries.


In the medical field, much if not all data needs to be retained, often for the life of the individual patient and beyond. Data use within healthcare is vital and the requirement to keep that data readily available in EHR systems has never been greater, as medical research requires long-term storage and access to data to identify trends that may not be apparent initially. Even data from a decade ago might give indications of medical trends that were unimportant at the time, but are highly relevant now – and might just save lives.


In healthcare, what happens to a patient today has impact on the care they receive five to 10 years down the road. There is never a good time for downtime in healthcare. That is why the storage layer is essential to EHRs today, tomorrow or 10 years from now.


From a broader perspective, long-term analysis is needed to identify patterns and the relevant actions. For example, spatial mapping has helped to track the spread of Ebola and allowed the authorities to make the right decisions on where to close borders. Data has also been used to track mutations and minimise the impact such changes may have.


The EHR system of tomorrow will be intelligent enough to automatically populate the records, process and analyse the data, implement the course of action, and communicate essential information to the entire care team – in real time. This means that data availability is key to the efficiencies of such systems.


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