Digital health: making medicine more human


Covid-19 has lit a fire under the medical industry, driving them to re-evaluate and incorporate digital engagement models. Now, healthcare companies have a unique opportunity to continue this momentum beyond the pandemic bubble as Healthware Group CEO Roberto Ascione tells Dr Paul Tunnah at the 2021 Frontiers Health conference in Milan.

Digital health has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past few years. Driven by necessity, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced a serious conversation around how we can use these digital tools to improve the overall workings of medical care.

For Healthware Group CEO Roberto Ascione, this transition has been a long time coming. Born into a family of doctors, his formative years were shaped by two core passions – medicine and technology.

Nowadays, combining these two disciplines seems like a natural progression, but, at the time, they were seen as entirely separate fields. Unfazed by this perception, Ascione began to envision a future where medicine and technology not only functioned alongside each other but collided into a system that could vastly improve healthcare, not just for his patients but for all patients.

Now, with decades of experience as a thought leader in the digital health space, Ascione has released his first non-fiction book, The Future of Health. It is a crystallisation of his understanding of digital health both past and present, as well as how this asset could help create a proactive approach to healthcare.

“The book is about this notion of the future of health and this shift away from curing diseases, to taking care of people before we all eventually become patients,” he explains.

“If I had become a doctor, my impact could have been a few thousand people,” he says. “But by writing software for doctors or for medicine in general, this impact could have been much bigger.”

Changing attitudes to digital health

The healthcare landscape has undergone a transformative shift since Ascione began his pursuit of technology-driven medical care. No longer a pipedream for those with a vision, digital health is now a driving force for thought leaders planning the future of healthcare.

It has not been a simple process. In the early stages of the industry, development at scale was relatively difficult as many simply didn’t understand the support needed to bring products from proposal to patients.

“If you think about the level of investment to develop a new drug, nobody’s surprised how much a drug cost because we know the process behind it,” explains Ascione. “We are starting to realise what it takes to develop digital technologies, scientifically validate them, perfect, scale and distribute them globally.”

Consequently, digital health remained a fringe element of healthcare for many years, driven predominantly by start-up pioneers in the space.

He continues, “As time passed and more technologies became available, this notion of using technology to improve human health became more real.”

This slow adoption of digital tools looked set to continue, with larger companies steadily coming around to the vision of a distant digital future.

Then Covid-19 hit. And that future wasn’t so distant anymore.

Entering the hybrid era of healthcare

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has been a unique learning opportunity for healthcare services and digital health companies. Unlike other industries, healthcare did not have the luxury of being cautious. It was a leap of faith for many, but one that has given clients a new wealth of tools that can be used to help improve the way that medical practices are approached.

Two years on, general awareness of digital health is greater than ever. With real-world success acting as a proof-of-concept for digital health, attention has turned to the role these systems could play once Covid-19 restrictions have eased.

“Now that we have proven that we can do things in a much more convenient way, there’s no reason why we should go back,” Ascione explains. “I don’t think many people will be happy to travel a couple of days, maybe with a relative, and take two days off at work for a 20-minute consultation that can be done elegantly in the comfort of your home.”

Instead, he foresees an engagement model that combines the most efficient and convenient elements from the digital and physical systems into a hybrid format.

“We already have signs that this will stick,” he says, “If you look at telemedicine, it’s between 30% and 40%, which is an enormous shift from the zero percent before the pandemic.

“There are many use cases where virtual will add value to the end-user. If you add this value, you can’t remove that convenience from the equation and hope that people will go back to before.”

Beyond the pandemic bubble

Digital health technologies, once buzzwords, now form one of the most vital pillars of healthcare. But that doesn’t mean that every stakeholder understands what they are or how to use them. In fact, complex digital systems can be alienating to the very people who could benefit from implementing them.

For Ascione, the issue of education will be a driving force for digital healthcare moving forward. However, he notes, awareness is only one piece of the puzzle. If the momentum of the past two years is to continue, stakeholders must also address the issues of funding and access.

“Some estimate that the global healthcare is a $10tn industry,” says Ascione. “It takes serious funding to scale these companies from smaller, local, proofs-of-concept into real players that are able to deliver these new opportunities and modalities on a global scale.”

One significant challenge he highlights is that healthcare extends across a myriad of environments with varying levels of infrastructure that may not be able to accommodate rapid technological innovation. This means that even the best developments may not reach those they are designed to help.

“We are starting to realise what it takes to develop digital technologies, scientifically validate them, perfect, scale, distribute globally,” says Ascione. “You can have a brilliant solution that really solves an unmet need and is scientifically sound. But, if you don’t create that infrastructure for this to be accessible by patients in the various systems, the most important part is missing.”

He is hopeful that the level of investment will continue to grow with the awareness bought about by Covid-19. Encouraging a thorough dialogue with clients at all levels, from government bodies and scientific societies to potential investors and industry thought leaders, may also help to drive real change in the industry beyond the investment bubble of 2020/21.

Making healthcare more human

While some may view the pandemic investment boom to exist in a bubble – set to pop once Covid-19 restrictions are no more, for Ascione, this is just the beginning. Healthcare services will either have to adapt to this new normal or risk being left behind by the competition.

“This is something that is here to stay, and the level of funding is just becoming consistent for the magnitude of the challenge,” he says.

Ultimately, the pandemic may be the catalyst needed to re-evaluate the way that medical treatment is approached, reducing the time clients spend away from patient care and making healthcare more human.

“We are just in the beginning of phase two,” he says, smiling. “It’s a great time to be in this industry, for sure.”

About the interviewee

Roberto is a pioneer in digital health and a recognised thought leader, people-inspiring founder, serial entrepreneur and global manager.

Trained as a medical doctor and in marketing communications, his passion for medicine, computer science and human-technology interactions have led to his lifelong commitment and dedication to the advancement and spreading of digital healthcare, he holds a strong belief that digital innovations and technology will be the most impactful drivers of change in healthcare.

Roberto is currently CEO at Healthware Group, a global health innovation and technology leader providing transformational advisory and technology services for commercial, medical, and R&D operations of life-sciences and digital health companies, combined with design and development of owned digital medicines and digital therapeutics products.

Proprietary software platforms, specialised media and educational assets as well as a corporate venturing arm, ensure accelerated product development, close integration within the innovation ecosystem, continuous pipeline development and superior market access capabilities.

About the author

Eloise McLennan is the editor for pharmaphorum’s Deep Dive magazine. She has been a journalist and editor in the healthcare field for more than five years and has worked at several leading publications in the UK.

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