Lifting Healthcare Out Of Its Digital Malaise

The power of data in healthcare is nothing new. In 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis collected data to uncover why so many women in maternity wards were dying from childbed fever. After several outlandish theories, he discovered that medical students were transferring cadaverous particles from autopsies and thus one of the first infection-control hand-washing protocols was born. As a result, the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically. By using data to reach his conclusion, Dr. Semmelweis was a data scientist before his time.

Fast-forward 170 odd years

Thankfully, we now have sophisticated data crunching and analysis tools. For instance, data lakes store information in a central repository, where data can be indexed and shared at a moment’s notice. These lakes manage and visualize data from multiple sources and create metaphorical workbenches from which companies can do deep analytics. Why do we need this? New healthcare data is growing at the rate of 48 percent per year. The Internet of Things is creating a lot of this information. In a short space of time, a vast network of sensors will automatically capture real-time biometric data. This information will shed light on the impact of lifestyle on chronic diseases and wellness, and ultimately change behavior.

The Cardiac Risk Score visual design, based on the stellar work of David McCandless, is a case in point. From this design an app was developed around clinically derived specifications from Boston Children’s Hospital and was featured on SMART Health IT. Apps like this are designed to empower patients to make sense of their medical records by visually presenting their lab results to show that if they stopped smoking or lowered their blood pressure within normal range for instance, they could reduce their risk of a heart attack or stroke by a certain percentage. The app’s dynamic visualizations resonated with patients and provided important insights at the point of care.

However, such examples are exceptions rather than the norm. Dr. Joseph Kvedar, author of the Internet of Healthy Things, believes the healthcare industry is at a loss as to what to do with this immense opportunity. A broad list of obstacles is curtailing innovation, from liability concerns and overregulation to complex and long sales cycles. He refers to “chaos” within the ranks.

Recent Dell Technologies research certainly bears this out. Some 4,000 senior decision-makers from 16 countries and 12 major industries judged their businesses’ digital capabilities. The findings suggest public and private healthcare organizations are struggling the most. Public healthcare, for example, is the least digitally mature industry on the Digital Transformation Index: only 19 percent of organizations claim to be innovating in an agile way. In fact, the sector is least likely to perform any of the attributes of a digital business well and companywide.

These findings are symptoms of a larger malaise, including an aging population, shrinking budgets, staffing pressures, and more. It’s somewhat alarming that only 34 percent credit the C-suite for driving their organization’s digital strategy forward. Leadership is a must because in some respects, the lack of competitive pressure places the public sector at a disadvantage, as it removes the incentive for constant reinvention and improvement.

Private healthcare maintains only a slight edge over its public cousin. It’s the second least mature industry on the benchmark. In the same way that public healthcare organizations lack market pressures to compete, evidence suggests private healthcare has taken a laissez faire approach to rising customer expectations, insulated by the knowledge there will always be a stable need for healthcare. 72 percent of respondents in private healthcare admit to not acting on intelligence in real-time, and just half of respondents cite customers as a key influencer driving their digital strategies forward. This is markedly lower than the global average – despite the fact they exist to provide a patient-focused service.

Security concerns

While there are pockets of excellence, the industry faces significant security risks. According to the research, only 31 percent of respondents in public healthcare believe their organization can meet customer demands for better security. Medical equipment, of which there are legion – from diagnostic imaging machines, monitoring devices, etc. – operate as “black boxes,” using their own specialized software and hardware. These devices are typically overlooked when it comes to routine security testing and simulation.

The fact that implantables, such as pacemakers and infusion pumps, can be breached and tampered with raises the spectre of serious threats to patient safety. To combat these risks, healthcare organizations need to move well beyond traditional anti-virus software and harden devices with regular patching and configuration management, as well as using robust data encryption and advanced malware protection at all endpoints. In short, what is needed are mature process and platforms to protect this ‘internet of diagnostic things’ from destructive cyber-attacks.

Impacting lives with data enabled digital transformation

Returning to Dell Technologies’ study, the evidence suggests disruption often motivates a company to innovate and be the best it can be. We can see this in commercial industries. For instance, well over a hundred years ago, ADT Security used to provide armed security guards. It’s now the largest professional installer of home automation solutions in the U.S. It transformed because it had to respond to market disruptors. The adapt-or-die dynamic made the company what it is today.

Most industries have witnessed an influx of new competitors, in the form of digital start-ups and industry disruptors, thanks to digital technologies and initiatives. Healthcare recorded the least. But this doesn’t mean the healthcare industry isn’t and shouldn’t be under pressure to transform. We’ve seen several of our data-empowered customers such as Partners Healthcare leaping ahead. This all starts with transparent access to, and elegant visualization of, relevant data. Patients need a healthcare system that can prevent illness, cure cancer and save lives. Their needs are acute and their voices, if heeded, could change the world.

We at Dell EMC are committed to delivering technology to healthcare organizations of all types and sizes so they can transform and thrive in the digital economy – in fact, we’ll be discussing how at HIMSS17. Stop by booth #3161, where our team will be discussing the opportunity at hand for all healthcare organizations.

Please don’t hesitate to offer any comments below, and I look forward to seeing you at HIMSS17.

About the Author: David Dimond