The value of the human touch is perhaps nowhere more crucial than in the healthcare sector. Even though telemedicine became operational before the pandemic, people with non-emergency cases mostly still preferred face-to-face consultations with their doctors.
This preference is well-recognised by industry experts: patients often seek medical reassurance from physical consultations with healthcare professionals. However, as healthcare institutions continue to digitise their operations, there is potential to further simplify the entire patient journey, from booking a consultation to recovery.
The question remains— are patients and healthcare organisations ready for this change?
To explore potential answers, senior healthcare executives convened for a panel discussion titled “The Healthcare Organisation 4.0: Simplifying the Patient Journey,” organised by Jicara Media and hosted by Fujitsu, as part of the Healthcare Frontiers 2023 conference in Singapore.
Before the advent of Healthcare 4.0, both healthcare institutions and patients faced the complicated and often frustrating process of scheduling an appointment with a doctor.
Given the current technology, organisations should be able to leverage solutions to address this problem, observed Dr Jamie Mervyn Lim, Chief Executive Officer of Ren Ci Hospital.
“How do we honour patients’ time? For instance, if they have an appointment with a doctor at 2pm, do you see them exactly at 2pm? We need to adhere to the schedule, because just like employees, patients’ time is valuable. Why should the patient have to wait to be called? There must be a way to better manage scheduling and respect each other’s time,” he remarked.
One potential problem arising from the adoption of digital technology in healthcare is the possible elimination of the human touch. For example, if doctors completely leave it to AI to interview patients regarding their medical history, chances are some important details could be neglected.
This is exactly the predicament that Fujitsu intends to solve, noted Anthony Wang, a qualified doctor and now the Head of Healthy Living Portfolio for Fujitsu in Asia-Pacific.
“Maybe there is a quicker way for them to interview the patient, using some sort of prompt as an example. This is what I’m trying to do at Fujitsu, putting a human spin on something technological. The challenge is how do we work with doctors better? How do we make that whole patient journey better?,” he said.
For healthcare, Wang added, there is clearly no one-size-fits-all solution.
“You have to look at what’s real, solve it, and then be ready to tweak it. But most importantly, think about the human side,” the Fujitsu executive stressed.
Meanwhile, serving a large number of elderly patients, Ren Ci Hospital saw firsthand how seniors struggled during the pandemic, especially as doctor-patient interaction largely moved online.
However, the healthcare institution worked alongside their patients to slowly adopt new technologies.
“With COVID-19, you saw all your elderly patients, who were not tech-savvy, suddenly become well-versed in scanning QR codes. Virtually overnight, your environment changed because you had elevated the technical proficiency of a lot of elderly individuals, who are the ones who use a lot more care services. In just a few months, the seniors became tech-savvy, and they could use Zoom online. I believe that set the platform for a quick digital transformation,” recalled Dr Lim.
Technology also paved the way for medications to be delivered straight to patients’ doorstep, eliminating the need to queue at the pharmacy, Lim continued.
“The entire patient experience evolved and changed overnight, because circumstances have forced a change in the way we integrate healthcare. And I think what’s important now, in the new normal, is not to lose that momentum. How do we continue to build on it?” he noted.
Meanwhile, Dhillon Singh, VP of Customer Experience Management at HMI Group, having joined six months before the pandemic, experienced initial resistance when introducing digital tools to healthcare practitioners.
“When doctors talk to a patient, they want to guarantee that they’re going to achieve the desired outcome. With digitalisation, doctors don’t have enough evidence or data points to show that this actually delivers better outcomes for patients. So, overcoming that barrier of resistance was necessary, and COVID-19 has expedited the breaking down of these barriers,” he said.
As a healthcare organisation, Singh shared, HMI considered which parts of the healthcare continuum could be digitised, and which portions needed to retain the human touch.
While many clinics and hospitals now have an app to facilitate easier access to medical services, Singh emphasised that creating an app is just the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s not just about the technology. It’s also very much about the process and the people involved. It’s not only the doctors. It’s your patient service officers, it’s your clinic assistants— are they ready for that change? Are you ready to change everything that they’ve been doing for the past 10 years, in order to meet your goal of improving patient experience?” he asked.
To address this, there needs to be strong leadership backing for any new initiative, and organisations must invest both time and money to ensure that any new program or strategy— in this case, digitalisation— will be able to run smoothly, Singh said.
Solving the equation
To ensure the success of any digitalisation effort, Ren Ci’s Dr Lim agreed that staff buy-in from day one is crucial. This begins with helping them understand that technology is there to facilitate their work, rather than replace them.
“There is always fear about robots and technology. The question is, how do we reassure our staff that their routine, non value-added work can be taken over by technology, and that they will be upskilled to perform more high-value work?” Dr Lim said.
For HMI’s Singh, slow and steady wins the race.
“You have to find the test cases that prove that digitalisation works. Find the departments that are willing to support you in these initiatives, and it becomes much easier to find your internal champions to drive the contribution agenda, because they have done it. They can talk to other departments and say, ‘Yes, it sucks now, but it makes our lives better.’ They become advocates for you in driving that cultural change in the organisation,” Singh advised.
As for Fujitsu’s Wang, technology should ease people’s burdens rather than complicate them further.
To alleviate challenges associated with hospital referrals, Fujitsu developed a digital solution to expedite patient transfers.
“We first rolled out software that allowed general practitioners to submit an admission request to the hospital. This saved the practitioners’ secretaries about five to six hours a week on time spent on the phone, trying to confirm with the hospital who’s coming in, what time the surgery takes place, and what equipment is needed,” Wang shared.
He added that it’s not about taking jobs away. It’s about saving time so healthcare professionals can focus on other tasks that actually improve the quality of care.
Back to basics
In conclusion, Ren Ci’s Lim laid down some pointers to further guide organisations that are planning to embark on digitalisation soon.
“My advice to anyone attempting digitalisation in the healthcare setting is to first map out the patient journey. Understand their needs. What are the different touch points? What are the patients’ preferences? What are their requirements?” he said.
Moreover, Dr Lim noted that directly digitising a manual or analog process is a huge mistake. Doing so without first reviewing the process would likely just facilitate inefficiency using technology.
The correct approach, he explained, is to first check whether such a process would still be relevant in a digital world. If the answer is no, then there is no need to digitise it.