Healthier solutions

To meet the needs of millions around the world facing death because they have no access to quality healthcare we must provide integrated, sustainable and innovative policies, says Gerard Kleisterlee

The future of healthcare is one of the most pressing global issues of our time. Just look at the impact HIV/Aids has had in Africa, where the average life expectancy has plummeted. Or think of the rapid increase of mortality from chronic diseases in Asia.

Our goal is clear. In the 21st century, access to quality healthcare is a basic human right. I cannot accept that millions of people die every year, simply because this access is blocked.

It is not easy to define a roadmap towards a system of universal healthcare that is both of decent quality and financially sustainable.

I passionately believe that patients should come first. We need new technologies, of course. But our starting point should always be their real needs, not an abstract technology or machine. We have to combine clinical expertise with insights into human needs.

Technology should help lower the workload of healthcare professionals, simplifying their work and improving their conditions and job satisfaction. This is not only a goal in itself, but also one of the best ways to ensure a patient-centred healthcare system. It is also especially important against the background of the rising shortage of healthcare professionals. Therefore, the needs of patients and staff should guide the technologies we develop, the business models we implement and the healthcare systems we design.

To meet their real needs, we have to provide integrated, innovative solutions across the entire cycle of care. We simply cannot afford to focus only on extremely costly and traumatic surgical interventions. We have to concentrate on prevention, early diagnostics and remote patient management. This will allow us to build high-quality, patient-centred and financially sustainable systems.

Of course, well-functioning hospitals will always be a cornerstone of a decent healthcare system. But patients obviously prefer prevention and disease-management at home and hospitalisation represents a tremendous financial burden.

Focus on the patient; simplify the workload of healthcare professionals; think of the entire cycle of care; develop a financially sustainable healthcare system; work together; align all incentives. This summarises Philips‘ healthcare philosophy.

Making healthcare available to patients in remote areas who currently lack any access is an important task. It is unacceptable that thousands of people die every week from diseases that could be easily diagnosed and treated. If we want to take the real needs of patients as our starting point, their first is that healthcare must be available.

Remote patient management can meet this need. We cannot set up full-blown healthcare systems — as in our cities — in all remote corners of the world in the near future. But we can extend the range of healthcare through this remote management.

Earlier this year, Philips introduced the Easy Web Healthcare System in the Philippines. This internet-based system allows online diagnosis of heart conditions by experts based at the Philippine Heart Centre in Manila. Easy Web is providing vital healthcare to thousands of heart patients in remote provinces, people who were previously beyond the reach of those specialists.

Remote management can focus on the parts of the care cycle we need to strengthen most: early detection and after-care outside the hospital. It also reduces the burden on healthcare professionals.

Beyond remote management, electronic-based healthcare, or eHealth, offers even more. We should use eHealth solutions, for example, for continuing medical education and training.

Of course, there are many questions and challenges. Can we improve electricity supply and the availability of bandwidth to such an extent that remote management becomes feasible? Can we train enough healthcare professionals to get the maximum benefits from the infrastructure we want to put in place? Will we be able to develop the right technology at affordable prices? Can we find the right business models and design the right healthcare systems for remote management to work?

Hard questions. And to get to the right answers, we will need a lot of creative, out-of-the-box thinking and constructive co-operation among all parties involved.

There are many more encouraging initiatives. In the US, the Virginia Mason Medical Centre in Seattle applied the efficiency principles of the Toyota production line to its chemotherapy unit. The results were astonishing. The 350-bed hospital has saved $6m (nearly £3m) in planned capital investment, freed 13,000 sq ft of space, cut inventory costs by $360,000, reduced the distance staff walk daily by 34 miles, shortened bill-collection times, slashed infection rates, spun off a new business and, perhaps most important, improved patient satisfaction.

Industry has the task of providing new products and services that will form the foundations of our future healthcare system. Technological innovation inspired by the real needs of patients and healthcare professionals is essential. This cannot be developed in one lab by one company, though. We need to co-operate in a spirit of open innovation.

While designing technological innovations, industry must never forget the human factor, including training of the professionals who will use the equipment. According to some sources, up to 50 per cent of technology imported from developed countries goes unused in developing countries, simply because there has not been enough training. A healthcare dollar spent on training may well be the dollar with the highest return.

But even if industry does it all right, we can’t fix the problems on our own. Even if we come up with the right products and the right business models, others have to do their bit.

Edited extracts of speech given by Gerard Kleisterlee, president and chief executive of Philips Electronics, to this month’s ASEAN symposium on access to healthcare in Kuala Lumpur