June 20, 2024

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most important health challenges

Confronting the Digital Dilemma in Healthcare’s Quest for Innovation

It may come as no surprise that healthcare in 2024 faces a paradox: Groundbreaking technologies like precision medicine and AI-driven diagnostics offer the promise of revolutionized patient care; yet, the sector remains tethered to the fax machine – an archaic method of communication on which myriad practitioners continue to rely. 

Though it may appear benign at first glance, fax-based communication has caused issues for patients with complex medical histories, such as those battling cancer. For these patients, seamless coordination between multiple specialists and healthcare facilities is crucial. However, faxed records often require manual processing (since these are often copies of copies) and are prone to misinterpretation, delays, information, and ultimately (and most notably), the risk of miscommunication.

This not only complicates the management of their care but also places unnecessary stress on patients and their families during already difficult times.

More importantly, the persistence of fax-based communication starkly highlights the broader issue of digital transformation in healthcare: While there is a clear potential for modern digital health solutions to enhance data sharing, improve interoperability, and ultimately revolutionize patient care, the reality is markedly different.

The healthcare sector’s slow pace in abandoning outdated practices such as faxing underscores a significant gap between the potential of cutting-edge technology and the current state of data sharing and interoperability. This gap not only hampers immediate patient care but also stifles the broader aspirations of medical research and the global movement towards a more integrated, innovative healthcare system.

If we are to advocate for better healthcare, we must start with our records and bridge the gap between what’s possible and the current reality. Here’s why.

Outdated communication significantly impacts record-keeping and continuity of care

The healthcare industry’s continued use of fax machines complicates record-keeping and leads to fragmented and sometimes lost patient records. This situation poses significant risks, especially for patients needing coordinated care from multiple specialists, such as cancer patients.

In 2009, then President Obama signed into law the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which was designed to transition hospitals and clinics to digital records. Despite high hopes, the transition to government-funded electronic health records posed usability issues, and ultimately, many hospitals opted to continue using old-fashioned faxes for sharing records.

This outdated technology can cause delays, errors, conflicting treatments, and potentially dangerous oversights. For example, a missed fax could lead to a cancer patient receiving the wrong chemotherapy dose, or a surgeon making decisions without the latest information. Such scenarios not only threaten patient health but also undermine trust in healthcare systems.

Reliance on faxes obstructs medical research and discovery

The healthcare industry’s reliance on faxing records significantly hinders the potential of big data analytics that are crucial for modern medical research and improving patient care. Fragmented patient data can restrict the ability to aggregate, share, and analyze information on a large scale, which also limits research into complex diseases and the development of personalized care and novel treatments.

Big data analytics has the potential to revolutionize healthcare by uncovering patterns in disease, treatment efficacies, and genetic predispositions that remain hidden within inaccessible, faxed documents. Leveraging real-world data is essential for advancing patient care, optimizing treatments, and informing healthcare policies. Transitioning to digital data sharing platforms would not only improve privacy, security, and interoperability but also enable the healthcare industry to tap into the full potential of this data for research, innovation, and evidence-based medicine.

In turn, moving beyond faxes to integrated digital health information systems would serve as a foundational step towards harnessing the power of real-world data for groundbreaking medical discoveries, enhanced patient outcomes, and a more informed approach to healthcare.

Interoperability and data privacy are significant concerns

The slow adoption of digital health technologies in the healthcare industry is largely due to challenges with interoperability and data privacy. Interoperability issues arise from a fragmented system of proprietary standards that prevent the seamless exchange of information, while strict data privacy regulations add complexity to digital integration.

Despite these obstacles, examples from the banking industry and pioneering countries like Estonia, which successfully integrated a national electronic health record system, demonstrate that overcoming these hurdles is possible and beneficial. These successes show that with robust data security measures, regulatory cooperation, and a commitment to universal standards, the healthcare sector can achieve a more efficient, connected, and patient-focused system.

We must change; we can change

The imperative to modernize healthcare communication methods extends beyond mere technological upgrades. Rather, it’s a fundamental necessity to enhance patient care, streamline healthcare delivery, and unlock the full potential of medical innovation. The persistence of faxing starkly illustrates the gaps in our current healthcare system, which is in dire need of transformation to meet the demands of the 21st century and beyond.

This transformation requires a concerted effort among all stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem. Healthcare providers must lead the charge to adopt and advocate for digital solutions that facilitate seamless patient care. Policymakers play a crucial role in crafting regulations that not only protect patient privacy but also promote data interoperability and the secure sharing of information. Technology developers, on their part, must ensure that digital health technologies are not only secure and compliant with healthcare standards but are also user-friendly and accessible to all healthcare professionals.

Key steps towards achieving this vision include establishing clear, universally accepted data-sharing guidelines that respect patient privacy while promoting the free flow of critical health information. Additionally, fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration within the healthcare sector is essential. This involves encouraging partnerships between tech companies and healthcare providers, facilitating pilot projects to test new technologies, and providing platforms for sharing best practices and lessons learned.

Ultimately, our vision for the future healthcare ecosystem is one that is resilient, efficient, and highly responsive to the needs of patients and healthcare professionals alike. It is a system where advanced digital solutions not only support the delivery of care but also empower it – enabling faster diagnoses, more effective treatments, and personalized care plans. By embracing digital transformation, the healthcare sector can achieve improved outcomes, reduced costs, and a level of patient satisfaction that reflects the incredible advances of our time.

Photo: hirun, Getty Images

Mika Newton is the CEO of xCures, an AI-assisted platform that automatically retrieves and structures medical records from any US care site. He holds over twenty-five years of leadership experience in the life sciences.