Technology can quickly inoculate us against the threat of a global pandemic and save thousands of lives. Fear and nascent panic is inevitable when a newsworthy virus brings world powers to a near standstill; but the side effect is surprisingly beneficial. It gives authorities the will and the backing to change the healthcare system.
Global markets are roiling at the thought of the coronavirus’ impact on world trade, but right at home the IDB reckons our economy loses a conservative $8.7 billion a year to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Expressed in any other time that number would be plastered on headlines: it dwarfs the billion dollar Dragon field and Loran-Manatee. To put it in perspective: that is almost 40 per cent of our gas production lost to disease.
The result: our hospitals are overwhelmed and full to the brim. A full-scale coronavirus outbreak could overwhelm our resources, stretched as they are by the results of chronic diseases.
I always feel guilty walking through a public hospital to interview any doctor (and I’ve interviewed almost 70 in the last few months). There is a nagging awareness that they could be treating a wound or giving comfort to a patient; with elderly people with trembling plaintive voices, clutching my shirt as I walk past, crying “doctor, doctor, help me.”
We must give our hospitals breathing room, but more cash is not necessarily the answer, even if we could scrounge some pennies from under a sofa or two. The scarcest commodity in the healthcare system is time. Although we have some of the best doctors and nurses in the region, they are stretched and exhausted. To see a doctor, thousands of people sacrifice hours waiting in lines or lie in corridors, robbed of their dignity.
The good news? Technology is a quick kill: tracking, scheduling and reports can be automated and save tens of thousands of hours.
Anyone that doesn’t require emergency room treatment should have to review an online calendar and make an appointment (with a phone system for those that can’t access computers). The waiting lines would vanish. Tens of thousands of hours would be freed up.
If a doctor can record patient records in a database that can be shared countrywide, then thousands more hours can be saved for very little outlay. A patient will be able to go to different doctors in different centres or hospitals, and the doctor can quickly pull their history. Just think of how much time is lost now while people physically search for files; no small number of which end up lost, or what patient decisions are being sacrificed for lack of patient history.
Access control systems that require all staff to buzz in can track the number of hours staff are in buildings, and generate alerts when staff are logging too many or too few hours. This will support accountability and provide hard evidence to show the public what many of us already know: the great majority of our doctors, nurses and others are working themselves to the bone for patients.
The real prize though won’t just be the thousands of hours saved but the data that can answer policy questions. How many patients are using each service? What times of day are patients coming? What is the average waiting time for each procedure? Budget and staffing requests can then be grounded in hard numbers instead of historical estimates.
Right now, a good number of the patients that flood our emergency rooms don’t need to be there. They have ailments that can be largely treated in a health centre. If the first doctor a patient meets can quickly record a condition electronically, judge its severity, and schedule an appointment in a health centre, then this will take a good deal of the burden away from hospitals.
Meanwhile, most health centres are underused during daytime hours, and only heat up in the afternoons, when people leave work.
As it is, even patients discharged from A&E wards have to return for follow-up treatment, consuming time that could be spent on urgent cases and causing long waits. Repurposed, dedicated outpatient clinics can reduce the burden on emergency services, using resources that already exist.
Finding and publishing data can help mend the relationship between an angry public and defensive officials, and help authorities educate and work with the public to improve health delivery. We can save millions, restore dignity to patients and be ready to meet any virus, whether it bears a resemblance to a Mexican beer or not.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh