What role can technology play in increasing health systems resilience?

3 August 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

Can health technology foster greater resilience in our health care systems? What lessons have we learned from the covid-19 pandemic about the role of technology in healthcare provision?

In a summer workshop hosted by CSaP in partnership with Member of Parliament George Freeman and experts from the health policy and technology policy sectors, we explored the future potential of health technologies in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic. This was the second in a series of three workshops which seek to explore aspects of how institutions and policy approaches focused on health and the economy can be strengthened and support innovation following the covid-19 pandemic.

What lessons have we learned from the covid-19 pandemic?

According to Chris Yiu, Executive Director of Technology and Public Policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, covid-19 has exposed questions about improving situational awareness concerning the health status of populations and the capabilities of health systems. Mr Yiu has suggested we need to use the lessons of the pandemic to start a conversation around ensuring our society optimizes public health and individual health, rather than focusing the policy conversation solely on the healthcare system. He also suggested that many of the institutions built during the 20th century are mismatched for the challenges the world now faces. Consequently, Mr Yiu believes that policy approaches heavily focused on investment in physical infrastructure such as hospitals are both becoming rapidly unaffordable in the context of aging populations and are too focused on dealing with the symptoms rather than the root causes of population health.

A future role for health technologies?

As we go forward, Mr Yiu has suggested that healthcare technology has the potential to offer highly personalized, dynamic, and more predictive healthcare, which will be better able to serve the needs of the population. While there are difficult questions ahead concerning data management and privacy, he has noted that precision medicine has the potential to put individuals much more in control of their health status and health interventions. Building on this, Dr Philippa Brice of the PHG Foundation highlighted that remote, non-invasive monitoring has the potential to help people better predict health risks and to create opportunities for earlier intervention. There is also potential for technologies such as breath analysis and environmental sensors, as well as non-traditional data such as social media and online search activity, to refine our ability to predict and prevent disease.

However, Professor Carol Brayne, Director of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, has also cautioned that in her view, thinking has become too interested in early detention and future health, as opposed to present wellbeing. As we go forward in exploring the role of technologies in public health, she suggests we should not assume that there will always be benefits. While personalised medicine and technology may be good for business, we need to ensure we think about the nature of the advances this technology might be able to make, and how they may exacerbate inequalities or have unintended consequences. Moreover, she has noted that out that while health technologies may give individuals more information through which to understand their health, there are those within society who want to live their lives in a way that supports wellbeing, but which is not focussed on it. For those individuals, approaches to public health which rely heavily upon individuals taking control of their health status and health interventions may not be a good fit.

Future Challenges:

As decision-makers consider ways to optimise the use of technologies in healthcare while minimising the potential risks they pose, Dr Brice has posed three questions which can serve to guide the thinking of those involved in these conversations:

  1. How can we make the best use of technology whilst maintaining points of human contact and communication?
  2. How can we ensure that technology is serving the social needs we want it to serve, and how can we take into account real world demographics, political drivers, economic drivers and choices?
  3. How can we ensure that the development and deployment of health technologies involve a greater diversity of voices to ensure that these technologies are robust and sustainable?