Bridging healthcare gaps with communication technology

Image courtesy of National Cancer Institute.

The rapid transformation of healthcare in the past two to three years is undoubtedly a direct result of the pandemic. Organisations have been racing against time to continue delivering quality medical care while ensuring the safety of their staff.

This is where communication tools played a pivotal role, bridging the gap between patient care and overstretched medical resources.

In an online panel titled “Empowering the Digital Transformation of Healthcare,” part of the recent Zoom APAC Healthcare Summit, senior executives discussed their recent organisational challenges, and how video communications have been a catalysing factor in their digital transformation.

Physical limitations

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing was among the minimum health standards enforced to prevent the spread of the virus, not only from patient to patient, but more importantly, from patient to healthcare practitioner.

At Singapore General Hospital, online videoconferencing platform Zoom provided an additional layer of protection for doctors and nurses, shared Ang Shin Yuh, Deputy Director, Nursing Research, Transformation & Informatics, SGH & Singhealth Group Nursing.

“This was at a time when vaccines weren’t available yet. It was crucial for us to not only care for the patients but also to protect our staff. We sought solutions that would allow us to provide care without requiring our nurses and doctors to be onsite constantly. We used the Zoom platform, enabling patients to call us whenever they needed. We could then have a video call to assess their condition before donning our protective gear and attending to them,” she said.

In the case of Australian nursing agency Caring For You, traditional phone lines became unreliable due to a surge in calls and the emergence of hybrid work.

According to Torben Wick, Business Analyst, Caring For You, the company adopted Zoom Phone to address its external communication issues.

“This helped us to scale our operations because today, we are able to do 32,000 calls a week, which was impossible with the old landline system. Initially, we introduced Zoom Phone to one department, then rolled it out across the entire company. We also began using Zoom’s chat feature for internal communication within the same window,” he said.

After this, the nursing agency leveraged Zoom Contact Centre.

“This allows us to communicate with all our customers via phone or video, and we will soon incorporate mail and calendar functions as well,” Wick added.

In the Philippines, internet connectivity remains a barrier to efficient healthcare delivery, particularly due to the country’s archipelagic geography, noted Nonoy Colayco, Chairman, CareSpan Asia.

“We operate in a country with over 7,000 islands, so internet coverage is highly variable. We tested several leading global video platforms, and Zoom’s stability and quality were clearly superior. It is designed to find the best pathways to the internet, overcoming network instability. In an emerging country like the Philippines, where telecom infrastructure is rapidly growing but still inconsistent across the islands, Zoom was clearly the best solution,” he said.

Old wounds

At present, 60 million Filipinos are underserved in terms of healthcare, out of a total population of about 110 million, Colayco revealed.

The average healthcare expenditure per citizen in the Philippines, he added, is around US$190, which is only 10% of what is spent on citizens in Singapore, and 2% in the United States.

“We have one doctor for every 2,000 citizens. In the southern part of the country, it’s one doctor for every 10,000 citizens. On average, we have one hospital bed for every 100,000 citizens,” the CareSpan Asia Chairman pointed out.

Additionally, 29% of all Filipino deaths are premature, caused by preventable diseases. The incidence of chronic conditions increased from 22% to over 50% between 2009 and 2019.

“We all know that the top 10 chronic diseases in many countries are the leading causes of illness and death. Therefore, early detection, prevention, and chronic care are key to improving health and controlling costs, particularly in poor countries like the Philippines,” he said.

In Singapore, manpower shortages persist despite being a developed country.

“The biggest challenge we have moving forward is that we won’t have enough healthcare workers and resources. So we really need patients and family members to be empowered and take on a more active role in their own care and treatment,” Ang remarked.

To this end, SGH is looking at leveraging Zoom to connect patients in the hospital with family members at home and medical practitioners.

“All three parties can connect through a single videoconferencing function, allowing families to receive real-time updates about their loved ones,” she continued.

In Australia, Caring For You aims to offer its staff the flexibility to work in a hybrid setup.

“The hybrid work model is effective for specific scenarios in healthcare, such as telehealth appointments in GP clinics. For instance, we currently have a customer requiring our members to work in a telehealth capacity. However, the majority of our customers still require on-premises care,” Wick explained.

Path to recovery

Following its communications overhaul, Caring For You is exploring further improvements to client experience.

“We’re currently developing a self-service chatbot that can transition conversations to a real person. This will allow us to be more accessible to all customers, who can then communicate with us however they would like to,” Wick said.

Meanwhile, CareSpan Asia aims to eradicate healthcare poverty through affordable technology.

“That is what the universal healthcare app, launched in January of this year, aims to achieve. Our MIA CareSpan community platform seeks to end healthcare poverty through a one-time investment of US$5 per citizen. This amount covers the cost of installing basic digital infrastructure, enabling underserved communities to access quality primary care,” Colayco said.

As for SGH, the focus is on low-touch technology for healthcare solutions.

“I hope anyone developing tech solutions for healthcare pays close attention to UI and UX. We’re looking for low-touch technology—technology that operates seamlessly in the background and is easy for patients to use. This allows us to focus on delivering high-touch care to those who need more in-person guidance and contact time,” Ang concluded.