BRINGING HEALTHCARE HOME
With digital transformation in the healthcare system, remote care is proving to be a new important step. Moving ahead from tele-consultation and tele-medecine, virtual hospitals are expected to prove to be a milestone in remote healthcare, which began with the introduction of the internet.
In Asia, about a month back, Singapore’s Ministry of Health’s (MoH) Office for Healthcare Transformation (MoHT) has extended its ‘virtual ward pilot programme to more public healthcare institutions. Known as the Mobile Inpatient Care-at-Home programme, it offers patients the option to be cared for in their own homes. It launched its pilot programme first in April 2022 and now has extended it to more health institutions. Not only Singapore, but some other Asian countries too are moving towards virtual hospitals. The concept is gaining momentum due to several benefits. Not only virtual hospitals, but various other virtual care options are becoming popular in India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia.
Virtual hospital means providing total healthcare, just like hospital, at home. It uses telemedicines to deliver medical care at a distance – from hospital to home. It is a fullscale digital hospital providing various medical services online and enabling patients to avoid the stress and burden of traveling to an actual hospital. It is a digitally enabled at-home alternative to emergency or inpatient acute care.
It leverages telehealth for audiovisual communication and messaging, the Internet of Things (IoT) to access data from connected medical devices, AI for disease patterns identification, and more. Customised virtual hospital software can meet the unique needs and workflows of healthcare establishments. As a result, the care patients receive in virtual hospitals and the outcomes too, are no way less than in hospitals.
Governments and healthcare authorities in several Asian countries face a challenge of reaching the healthcare facility to the remotest corner of the country and/or bringing a patient from the remote locations to the nearest healthcare facility. If the disease is complex and requires the patient to move to a specialised healthcare facility dealing with that particular disease, the problem becomes more complex.
Just to understand the nature and gravity of the problem, if one looks at the example of India, only 32 per cent hospitals and 16 per cent beds were in rural areas just a few years back. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had said in the past that the density of doctors in India is four times higher in urban areas than rural areas. The figures may differ but the situation is not much different in some other Asian countries too. Virtual hospitals can be an important solution in such situations.
Rising hospitalisation costs are a matter of concern, even among middle class people, despite having health insurance schemes. India has one of the biggest health insurance schemes, involving the poor. Still, the cost is a matter of concern for several people.
Another benefit is related to releasing the burden of the actual healthcare system. With inadequate facilities compared to the number of patients in several countries, virtual hospitals can be a good safety value, releasing the pressure of the number of admitted patients as well as the number of patients waiting to get admitted. If one looks at Singapore, from April 2022 to June 2023 over 1,000 patients benefitted in the pilot programme. More than that, the statistics show that it saved 7,000 bed occupancy.
Then, there’s the notable impact for patients, which can be termed as purely emotional. Several hospitalised patients, if conscious, demand going back home even if they are not fully recovered and require more hospitalisation. But patients prefer a home atmosphere. With virtual hospitals it will be possible to allow patients to be at home and that may improve the recovery rate also.
A McKinsey study in Australia revealed that 80 per cent patients and 95 per cent physicians are showing growing acceptance and were satisfied with the virtual hospitals. That attests to the impactful role of virtual hospitals and how they can be popular. Will medi-robots be the next big trend?