Does the coronavirus change the future of health services? If so, how and why?
The coronavirus pandemic is a generational experience, globally. Especially in the health sector. Will it change the health sector? I think it will accelerate, I hope tremendously accelerate, the changes that were already around the corner before this unfortunate pandemic happened. This means the digitalisation of the health sector – using the potential of digital technologies that have been introduced in other sectors, in the health sector, which was lagging behind in development. The second change, which will be linked to digitalisation, is the acceleration of medical research and especially the acceleration of implementing medical research results into practice.
Can you explain a little bit more? How can we put medical research into practice?
I think we all observe now how big supercomputers are working to analyse data, clinical data and molecules as fast as possible to develop new drugs for coronavirus, to develop vaccines. So firstly this computational power, linked with data, will accelerate the application of medical research. The second thing is that if we have a health sector ecosystem in which patients are monitored, followed by a health care telemedicine environment, then it will be safer to introduce certain new drugs, new therapies, new diagnostics.
Can you talk a little bit about the new approaches or products that might be needed to cope with the future?
Well I’m thinking not only of hospitals as such, but the whole health sector – so digitalisation across the health sector. To have electronic records which may be used in hospitals, but also across other health sector facilities.
The possibility is that medical doctors from hospitals will be able to understand and analyse their patients’ data to draw some conclusions immediately. So using the knowledge about patients of today to treat the patients who will come next week. Then there are tools that enable us to follow the patient’s health status once they leave a hospital or health care facility. Telemedicine, m-health [mobile health], and now we observe the application of quarantine apps, which enable us to follow patients or individuals while they are in quarantine. But they could also be used to follow their health status and to provide fast medical advice.
The next thing we all observe are hotlines. The hotlines are now overloaded. But if we could use, like in some countries, voice bots to answer individuals calling, and only passed the phone to medical professionals in complex cases.
How difficult do you think it will be for the health sector to be able to use these new technologies? What have you seen so far in the crisis that gives you hope or that makes you realise how far behind we are?
I think I must say the latter one, but it’s not surprising. As I said, all the changes which are being introduced in the health sector are complex and risky. We have to approach them very carefully. Digitalisation of the health care sector is a very complex process that needs huge investment, but it also needs time – it won’t happen in one month or one year. It also needs tremendous human capital. It needs different skills for medical professionals. It needs legal changes. It needs societal readiness. It needs different types of professionals engaged in the health sector: for example more IT engineers, mathematicians, data analysts. The ecosystem of the health sector will change.
Will the digitalisation of health care raise concerns, like privacy? Will it be difficult for people to accept these sorts of changes?
Obviously medical data is very personal and very confidential. They have to be protected. So definitely this is one of the main challenges – this and the cybersecurity of medical data, especially if digitalisation happens across the health sector. That is why I think there will be a need for different professionals, like IT engineers, who will ensure the security of the data. It will also require new regulations, which is why we need lawyers who will create and implement this new regulation so that patients’ data are safe, and we will be confident that this new, digitalized health sector will act for our good.
Will this change how people receive their medical care?
Imagine that 50 years ago, our doctors did not have any sort of medical imaging except X-ray. They were blind, in some sense. They could not look into our bodies. Now, they have CT [computer tomography], MRI – they can look inside with all these forms of medical imaging. Fifty years ago, they couldn’t. And I think that we can compare this digitalisation of the health sector to the same situation.
Medical doctors will have insight into our data, and they will be able to make our treatment, diagnosis much safer, much faster, much better and much more accurate and personalised. Our doctors will be able to address our health problems much better than now.
This applies to situations like pandemics, where we have already seen some countries like Taiwan [use it]. When this digitalisation was effectively applied, the scale of pandemics has been narrowed down. But these benefits will also apply to diseases like cancer or to other non-communicable diseases, like diabetes, like cardiovascular diseases, etc.
What is the European Investment Bank’s role in all of this? How do we promote these kinds of changes and new technologies?
The EIB has always been keen to support the digitalisation of the health care sector, within legal frameworks. We were always enthusiastically supporting technological and non-technological innovations in the health sector. When we look now during this pandemic at our health sectors, we can see that there are huge investment gaps. And the EIB will try to address them.
What can the EIB do in that regard? We can be with our promoters, with our clients, from the preliminary phase of designing the digitalisation of the health sector. We can provide appropriately tailored long-term financing. And we have to remember that digitalisation and medical research means multibillion [euro] investments.
We also have to remember that the EIB is an international financial institution, which, unlike the World Bank, operates in very high-income countries. This creates opportunities for us to finance top-notch developments in medical research and in e-health. But this also creates a certain obligation.
According to the WHO, rich countries or high-income countries have 45 times more medical researchers than poor countries. So if there is some development and hope in fighting Covid19, it’s on our shoulders.
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