When thinking of giants in the world’s healthcare sector, names like Johnson & Johnson, UnitedHealth or Pfizer may come to mind.
However, speaking at the Growth, Innovation and Leadership summit in Cape Town last week, Frost & Sullivan partner Dorman Followwill said that none of these traditional names is the most important healthcare company in the world today.
“It’s Google,” he said. “These days the minute that symptoms present themselves you open your laptop. Google understands that they are now the first step on the therapy path.”
While concerns have been raised about people diagnosing themselves or being over-reliant on what they find on the internet, Google is meeting an obvious demand.
“This is creating a generation of patients called power patients,” Followwill explained. “They are not just a number any more, but people who make their own choices and determine their own therapy path.”
Google has responded by not just providing links to general information about ailments, but focused responses based on a user’s profile. If you search for ‘hip replacement’ in the US, for example, it will return ratings of hospitals that offer the surgery near your current location.
Essentially this reflects one of the failings of modern healthcare, which is that the patient is rarely in control or at the centre of the process. The relationship between doctor and patient is, in fact, highly asymmetrical.
Patients tend to defer their doctors in all respects. They are generally passive recipients of whatever treatments are recommended to them.
While one must assume that doctors have the best interests of their patients at heart and are acting in good faith, this is disempowering. The patient often becomes a problem to be solved, rather than a person to be engaged.
This is part of why medical treatment can be so traumatic.
“One thing that’s really disturbing about most healthcare systems across the world is the incredible fragmentation that takes place,” said Dr Ryan Noach, deputy CEO of Discovery Health. “Your GP doesn’t talk properly to your specialist; one specialist doesn’t communicate with another; and pathology tests are repeated unnecessarily because there is no coordination.”
A patient taking more control of the process mitigates this, because they manage their own information and ultimately make their own choices. Of course, they will engage the assistance of medical professionals when doing this, but they are not merely passive participants in the process.
Google on its own is not, however, a complete solution. It is only the potential start of the process.
What a properly patient-centric model requires is innovation that puts patients in control of their own medical information and therefore the ability to interrogate their options from an informed perspective. Using digital technologies is an obvious way to do this, and a number of companies are developing potential solutions.
Roach indicated that Discovery itself has developed a platform, and will soon be launching it to its members.
“It is a digital healthcare platform,” said Noach. “It allows you to ask an artificial intelligence (AI) engine any consumer-related health question, and the response you get will be contextual and meaningful.
“This is because we have a version of your health record and we give that to the AI engine with your permission,” he explained. “It will therefore be able to look at your question and answer it in the context of your medial history. If you then want to ask a doctor for more guidance directly, you can turn that into a digital consultation on the web, or through your smart phone or tablet.”
The uptake of this product and how it is used will be something that the industry will watch with interest.
“My prediction is that medicine of the future will look different and be practised differently,” said Noach. “Artificial intelligence will change doctors’ jobs. Patients will be at the centre, coordinating their own care, and this will completely change the current provider-centric, fragmented environment.”
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