The future of healthcare is not people versus machines

A digital shift in healthcare in recent years has paved the way for advances in automation, artificial intelligence and even surgical robots. Whether using a virtual human to capture patient intake data or sensors to monitor symptoms, digital technology is undoubtedly propelling the industry forward. But concern exists that this technology will start to replace health workers.

That’s not what we want to see — nor is it what we believe is inevitable.

The reality is that the health value chain is moving from a labor-driven and technology-enabled model to a digital-driven and human-enabled one.

In the future, the healthcare industry will be led by businesses that “put people first,” effectively complementing people with technology, rather than replacing them. Technology will augment clinical care and aid human decision-making, giving individuals the space to harness the — uniquely human — character and social skills that are the building blocks of healthcare.

Accenture recently identified five emerging forces that are converging to shape the “people first” healthcare landscape: intelligent automation, liquid workforce, the platform economy, predictable disruption and digital trust. Together, these five pillars reinforce the role of people in healthcare: clinicians, administrators, researchers, payers and, most assuredly, patients.

Consider intelligent automation. Some 70 percent of healthcare executives are increasing investment in artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, and 69 percent in machine learning. For clinicians, intelligent automation supplements the diagnostician’s ability to reach the right conclusion faster. At each stage of the healthcare value chain — from the laboratory to post-hospital care — sensors generate data that can be analyzed to inform clinicians, caregivers and patients to improve outcomes.

While intelligent automation can make sense out of masses of data, people are still the most important part of the equation. As Humana president and CEO Bruce Broussard recently wrote: “No technology will be a substitute for a smiling face, assisting in feeding or comforting with an arm to hold. Physicians, clinicians or family members simply cannot be replaced by machine learning in healthcare.”

Doctors and clinicians will be able to tap digital technologies to further adapt and augment human labor.

In the under-served and high-demand area of mental health, SilverCloud uses intelligent automation to provide mental and behavioral health services to patients online, across any digital platform the patient prefers (mobile phone, tablet or computer). Over a decade, SilverCloud has learned that complementing the automation engine with a human touch drives dramatic improvements in patient outcomes.

Now, take the liquid workforce. It’s expected that 42 percent of healthcare workers will be contractors, freelancers and temps by 2019. Telehealth channels can help providers reach many patients, from wherever that provider is working. By 2018, Kaiser Permanente expects to conduct most of its patient visits virtually, and a survey by American Well found that two out of three patients would accept video-based appointments.

In response to demand for virtual care, American Well launched a telehealth service, the Exchange, which enables healthcare providers to redistribute their services online to patients. Patients can access services 24×7 through their chosen technology platform (computer or mobile), and healthcare providers can integrate the Exchange’s telehealth services into their consumer-facing apps or kiosk. This also brings into play the third trend, platforms.

The platform economy is already transforming healthcare and other industries. Indeed, 39 percent of healthcare executives believe platform-based business models will be critical to business success. And industry analysts expect 10x growth for APIs by 2021.

Jiff, a healthcare platform company that focuses on employee health benefits, combines data from disparate sources to create benefits that meet the specific healthcare needs and preferences of individual employees. Jiff also uses predictive analytics to provide to plan members personalized recommendations, such as prevention reminders and healthy living suggestions. As Jiff CEO Derek Newell recently wrote: “Predictive analytics offer employers a promising way to get ahead of healthcare cost drivers … However, prediction without employee action delivers no value.”

Just as Jiff is shaking up traditional employer health benefit workflows, other companies are central to predictable disruption across the industry. Indeed, 86 percent of healthcare executives feel pressure to reinvent their businesses before they are out-innovated by competitors. Increasingly, the legacy healthcare system — hospitals, health insurance plans and life science companies — is being challenged by startups and digitally based businesses that health consumers — particularly millennials — find more accessible, transparent and impactful.

One such disruptive company, Zipdrug, is up-ending the traditional bricks-and-mortar pharmacy. The average wait time at a U.S. pharmacy is 45 minutes. But Zipdrug’s customers can access on-demand prescription drug delivery, simply by downloading an app and placing an order.

A nascent solution for fostering digital trust is blockchain technology.

That leads to the important role of digital trust. Accenture estimates that cyberattacks will cost hospitals $305 billion over the next five years and that one in 13 patients — about 25 million people — will have personal health information stolen. Bolstering consumer trust is crucial to people engaging in their healthcare and embracing personalized medicine. And, consumers want to participate: 65 percent of health citizens globally believe that the benefits of being able to access medical information electronically outweigh the risk of privacy invasion.

A nascent solution for fostering digital trust is blockchain technology — a decentralized list of all transactions across a peer-to-peer network that uses cryptography principles to tracks who has seen what, while also preserving a level of anonymity. Blockchain is already used in Estonia, a country that leads the world in digital government. Every citizen has a digital identity, which provides the foundation for securing Estonians’ health records.

A report by the U.K. government recently validated the role of blockchain in securing EHRs, saying: “The technology offers the potential to improve healthcare by improving and authenticating the delivery of services and by sharing records securely according to exact rules. For the consumer of all of these services, the technology offers the potential for individual consumers to control access to personal records and to know who has accessed them.”

These five trends provide the foundation for better health staffing, virtual healthcare, self-care and personalized health coaching, on-demand prescription drug delivery and the control of EHRs. As they take hold on the industry, doctors and clinicians will be able to tap digital technologies to further adapt and augment human labor, personalize care and free-up time to focus on where they’re needed most.

This translates into quicker and more accurate diagnoses, bolstered health literacy, less waiting at the doctor’s office and streamlined healthcare patient journeys. Put simply, combining people with machines will liberate healthcare workers to work at their best and truly put the “care” into the healthcare industry.