The path towards resilient health systems is digital

Finding solutions for today's challenges is vital during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic; however, long-term vision is needed to build resilient, sustainable health systems that can respond to patient needs consistently and effectively.

The pandemic has shown us that many of the worldโ€™s health systems were not prepared for a public health emergency of this magnitude, one that has exceeded the capacity of systems in an alarming way. In developing regions like Latin America, the lack of robust primary care systems and an interconnected digital infrastructure has been an obstacle to the care and monitoring of COVID-19 patients and to the continuous care of those with other illnesses. At the same time, governments did not have the quality data on how the virus spread that could have enabled suitable preventative measures at the outset, leading to an impact that extended beyond health.

In fact, according to the recent Latin American Economic Outlook (LEO) 2020 by the OECD, the pandemic worsened an existing digital gap in the region owed to economic and social differences. The current context presents an opportunity for us to focus on future needs and drive a digital transformation. Besides supporting long-term economic development, this would promote the populationโ€™s wellbeing, strengthen public institutions and improve governance.

Health and digital technology converge

Technology is a valuable tool for improving access to health services and the quality of care. Additionally, it can contribute to better clinical outcomes for patients. To start, a more robust digital infrastructure for health systems has enabled the development of agile, interconnected electronic health record systems, increasing the capacity for data collection and analysis for clinical decision-making on patient groups with similar features.  

This model of care is known as personalised medicine or data-based medicine. Utilising factors like a patientโ€™s genetic makeup, predisposition and therapy response, personalised medicine utilises real world data to inform medical care. It thus achieves highly effective outcomes by homing in on the particularities of each case. At the same time, it optimises the use of health system resources by preventing both disease progression and greater care needs on the part of patients, who can avoid complex treatments that do not respond to their needs.  This is the medicine of the future, abandoning the approach of a single treatment for all patients in the same condition.  

What is the current state of health systems in Latin America with regard to personalised medicine?

The FutureProofing Healthcare Index, which assesses this aspect in 10 countries in the region, found that the infrastructure designed to gather and manage health informationโ€”the infrastructure required to implement personalised medicineโ€”could be more robust. It uses three countries, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay, as models, all of which have made considerable progress.

With regard to the challenges the region faces, access and the limited use of mobile technologies by the population, as well as a lack of electronic medical record systems, are two of the most pressing. However, another trigger is essential: data-based public policies that provide flexibility and transparent guidelines for information management while enabling the integration of digital solutions. Such policies are key to ensuring that the benefits of these solutions and digital tools reach patients and are sustainable. 

Governments need to understand their macro-level needs to see how health systems with a solid digital infrastructure can drive a countryโ€™s development and assure the populationโ€™s wellbeing. It's time to understand that precisely because of the pandemicโ€™s tremendous economic impact, funds need to be reallocated and investments made to strengthen the systems that respond to emergencies like this one. 

In order to achieve this objective, intersectoral action is of the essence. Public and private actors must work together to bring more tools to the table, including research like that of the FutureProofing Healthcare Index, allocated funding and a solutions portfolio that allow the needs of each country to be understood. This way, the best path forward can be determined in each case while the lessons learned are shared across borders.

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