What is 'digital health' and how will it change nursing?

What is 'digital health' and how will it change nursing?
What is 'digital health' and how will it change nursing?

Hospitals and other medical establishments have gone through a huge technological transformation over the last decade, and the pace of change won’t be slowing down any time soon.

What is driving this change? We are! It’s all about customer expectations and the huge gap that we often discover between our own expectations and our actual experience.

Individualising services in real-time

We naturally expect deep personalisation in our experiences as consumers. This is because of the way that brands have lifted the game, whether we’re ordering an Uber, having Netflix recommend TV series and movies according to our taste, or being served a personalised playlist on Spotify. Great businesses are utilising data and cloud technology to individualise their services in real-time.

In doing so, they are making the process of dealing with consumers as frictionless as possible. So when we rub up against an organisation that is not using technology so effectively, we notice it.

As patients, for example, when we walk into a hospital we are asked to fill out paperwork. A paper-based file hangs on the end of our hospital bed. Our GP is handed a manila folder containing our past visit details before they call us in for our appointment. And suddenly the medical establishment seems very old-fashioned.

Even with the very best management, there has always been a problem with paper in the medical arena. There’s the infamous nature of doctors’ handwriting, leading to legibility issues and the potential for wrong medications and inconsistent treatment plans. In 2019, the Medical Journal of Australia reported that “the potential cost of medication‐related hospital admissions in 2011–12 was about $1.2 billion”.

Paper also causes inefficiencies around accuracy and the pace of transferring information from one specialist to another, or from one clinic to another. There’s also a lack of visibility over medical history; valuable information such as specialist letters, referrals, prescriptions, event summaries and discharge summaries can be lost when an individual moves to another area. This makes future processes more difficult for the individual and their medical carers.

Then imagine the opposite — a paperless system in which the patient and their information is at the centre of every decision that is made. They can organise appointments with medical professionals who they have pre-screened (via Airbnb-type ratings and reviews from past patients) on their smartphone or tablet. They can also set up meetings via video call. 

When they arrive at a clinic for an appointment, the patient’s entire medical history is available, meaning the practitioner can make better-informed decisions. Past X-rays and scans are located in the same system, in addition to past and current prescriptions.  A comprehensive and accessible record of medical history is available to the health professionals and the patient thanks to the smart use of data in healthcare. 

Just as Spotify and Netflix know an individual’s preferences, wants and needs, so does a digital health system. Its artificial intelligence function, once developed, will help with basic medical advice and recommendations.

And just as leading consumer businesses can now predict what it is that we will enjoy/purchase/require, digital medical systems will also develop the capability to recommend and schedule future medical appointments as a powerful form of preventative care.

Digital health is not yet a reality in Australia, mainly as a result of privacy issues, challenges and expenses involved with the replacement of legacy systems. There are also problems around the massive organisational and regulatory change that is required. Digital health has been slow to develop in Australia, but it is on its way.

A nurse recording the administration of a patient's medicine on a clipboard.

The democratisation of medicine

A paper published in journal mHealth defined digital health as “the cultural transformation of how disruptive technologies that provide digital and objective data accessible to both caregivers and patients leads to an equal level doctor-patient relationship with shared decision-making and the democratisation of care”.

It’s interesting that the paper uses the term “cultural transformation”, indicating a change that is happening whether the medical establishment welcomes it or not.

“This transition is slowed down by strict regulations; the reluctance of stakeholders in healthcare to change; and ignoring the importance of cultural changes and the human factor in an increasingly technological world,” the authors said. 

If the world of medicine doesn’t get on board, it risks losing the patients to “an accessible, but unregulated technological solution”, the paper said, as has already occurred in the world of transport (Uber), accommodation (Airbnb), banking (Ubank), music (Spotify), insurance (Lemonade) and more.

Why “democratisation”? Because the patient is now very much an active part of the process. They will have greater control and better vision into the details of their care. 

Patients manage the process, rather than the process of managing them. Most importantly, they will have a far greater choice of treatments and service providers.

A male nurse helping an elderly man walk through a corridor with a zimmer frame.

What does digital health mean for nursing?

Digital health covers a vast spectrum. It encompasses everything from wearables to mobile apps to digital health records and remote care, and much more. 

Digital health is not just a new way of working. It’s a new way of thinking and doing. So what does all of this mean for nurses?

First of all, it’s highly likely that nurses will spend less time on administration and compliance tasks and more time actually nursing. Background systems will ensure that issues such as effective and productive roster management and the matching of nursing skills with patient and compliance needs are managed automatically.

Clinical documents that help support a high-quality continuity of care will add depth to the patient/nurse relationship. Those documents will be held within a secure, centralised system that offers differing levels of access to various stakeholders.

A greater depth of data on important health markers — constantly measured against powerful anonymised databases of people of similar ages, body types, cultural backgrounds, etc.—will help to inform the decisions nurses have to make on an hourly basis.

Nurses will also be better able to provide remote care, whether via apps such as FaceTime and Skype or through constant-monitoring systems and wearables, like Apple Watch with its ECG and fall-detection features.

Wearables will become more commonplace in hospitals too, negating the constant need for manual processes to measure body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, etc. 

The nursing profession will be undergoing constant change thanks to the digital revolution. This means ongoing education such as the UTS Online Master of Health Services Management will be increasingly important. The good news is that nurses will have greater freedom to do the caring work they always dreamed of doing when they decided to enter the field, and will spend less time doing repetitive, and often dull duties.

To learn more about the online Master of Health Services Management, get in touch with our Enrolment Advisors on 1300 477 423.