For emerging economies, the widespread use of information technology in healthcare could seem like an investment in the wrong end of the problem. Critics may argue that money would be better invested in graduating healthcare workers and improving grass-roots education. And while they’re not wrong, they might find that IT can help facilitate these dreams as well. 

Every year, the developed world loses billions of dollars – and hundreds of thousands of lives – because healthcare records are incomplete or simply unavailable.
In fact, as many as 195 000 Americans die because of medical errors in hospitals – things like incorrect medication being administered, or else in the wrong dosage, or simply because information about the patient is wrong or not there.
This shocking statistic reveals that more people die because of faulty information that from the sum of people succumbing to car accidents, breast cancer and AIDS.
And the cost of these erroneous deaths costs the American economy a staggering $30-billion.
“But why are these errors happening?” asks Sharad Gandhi, director: EMEA for digital health at Intel. “It is generally because information on the patient, of his medication, or his lab reports are not in the right place when a decision needs to be taken.
“The systems we have in place are failing to take care of the patients.”
These figures are not confined to the US; Gandhi says most countries’ healthcare systems could reveal similar statistics – and they are arguably worse in the places where they’re not being measured.
“In some way, the healthcare situation affects us all,” he points out.
Just consider some of the world’s demographic statistics, he adds. Around the globe, there are currently more than 650-million people over the age of 65, a number that will double in the next 10 years.
More than 1-billion adults are overweight, which spawns a host of other problems like diabetes and heart disease. And, around the world, more children than ever before are battling with obesity.
At least 860-million people are living with chronic diseases such as heart disease, asthma, even migraine – and as much as 80% of healthcare costs go to managing chronic diseases.
Against this backdrop, the world has just 200 000 hospitals with 18-million beds.
“It is clear that the way we address these problems has got to change,” says Gandhi.
The fundamental issues that face healthcare, and often stifle its delivery, he adds, are access, quality of care, and cost.
“In terms of access: in many countries, simply getting to the source of healthcare can be difficult – and this is not the case only in developing countries.
“Quality of care could be measured in terms of how long it takes to get an appointment to see the relevant healthcare professional; how long it takes to receive treatment; and whether a patient gets the right treatment. This is a big problem around the world.
“Cost is an element of healthcare that is rising all the time. The cost per person is going up – and it’s more for older people. This is important to remember as, in 2002, 10% of the world’s population was over 60 and there will be a lot more older people by 2050 – a lot of countries are going to be seriously affected.”
Gandhi points out that the healthcare ecosystem needs to be viewed holistically: there are patients, there are healthcare professionals and institutions providing services; there are the people who pay for it; and there are the organisations which provide pharmaceuticals.
“Put together, you have an enterprise consisting of healthcare providers and people – and the state of the enterprise determines whether the healthcare is good or not.”
Considering that, by 2015, 20% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) will be spent on healthcare, it would be nice to think that the industry was in good shape.
But, in fact, the healthcare enterprise is woefully behind the times when it comes to making the best possible use of IT, says Gandhi.
“Even in countries like the US, 90% of 30-billion transactions take place via mail, fax and phone – there is very little use of electronic communications.”
Gandhi explains that there is a fundamental shift going on in the healthcare world – and systems need to change to keep pace.
“There is a mega-shift happening – and it needs to happen,” he says.
“On one hand, we are seeing a shift away from once-off illnesses to chronic conditions. These cannot be treated once, but need to be managed – and in this case information becomes the lifeblood of the medical system.
“On the other hand, ICT is emerging as a solution in all instances where information has been a problem. It can simultaneously help to improve information quality, reduce costs and help to reduce life-threatening errors.”
The raison d’etre behind the digital health movement, he adds, is to try to get people out of the world’s overburdened hospitals and clinics to the point where they can receive proper care at home.
While this will ultimately reduce costs, its not an easy road to go down.
“First of all, we need integrated healthcare systems from home to office to hospital; then we need to empower patients themselves so that they can be at home, but still receive treatment; hospitals have got to become more efficient; and we need to work with diagnosticians and researchers so they can achieve breakthroughs faster.”
Gandhi explains that Intel works with the healthcare industry and IT suppliers to develop appropriate technology, with the required levels of performance and ability to process many Gigabytes of information.
Currently, a number of solutions are available, including: IT standards and system consolidation; mobile point of care units; personal health systems; and telemedicine.
One such solution is a mobile device for nurses. “We looked at what nurses need and came up with something that is hands-free, can be cleaned thoroughly, is noise-free and has a battery that lasts for a full shift,” says Gandhi.
“Another place where technology can make a difference is in the home so the industry has come up with personal health systems designed for chronic disease management.
“In the biomedicine space, there are a number of new technologies to help scientists develop and personalise medication.
“At the end of the day, healthcare is all about information.”
More importantly, it is also about empowering people to take control of their own destiny, or to be able to offer a better level of care to their loved ones.
Around the world, new technology is already being used to improve the quality of healthcare offered by institutions, Gandhi adds.
In a German hospital, nurses require 25% less time to perform their usual duties; a Chinese hospital has been able to increase the number of inpatients by 140% and the number of outpatients by 170%; in a US hospital, RFID has reduced the length of time patients stay be 10% while bed management and capacity has improved by 40% – and billing errors have been reduced from 20% to 5%.

Into Africa
While 1-billion people in the world have access to technology, the other 5-billion don’t – and the industry may have to look at different or adapted technologies for places like Africa.
In addition, the three challenges facing healthcare around the world – access, quality of care, and costs – are more noticeable than ever in a developing economy.
“A big problem is for people to get access to the right – or any – healthcare professional,” says Gandhi.
This is where the dream of telemedicine, if properly implemented, could have a dramatic impact of people’s quality of life, extending hospitals to serve rural communities.
“And this can be done with fairly rudimentary technology,” Gandhi adds. “In most cases, the technology problems associated with telemedicine can be easily resolved.”
He explains that, since transport is a problem for sick people, telemedicine can be used to allow a patient to be examined at long range to decide if it’s necessary to make a trip to hospital.
“Quite often, it’s a yes or no decision from the healthcare professional – but it can save a lot if it’s done electronically.”
All that’s needed at the rural clinic, he adds, is a PC and a Webcam connected via the Internet, with a nurse or paramedic in the rural clinic and the specialist on the other side.
On the connectivity side, ADSL or 3G is the preferred method of connecting to the Internet as images and pictures or reasonably high quality are being transmitted.