Every crisis provides the opportunity to re-evaluate our ways. The COVID-19 situation is no different and this pandemic has put the focus on our healthcare system. What has to change in the healthcare of the future? CEO Jan Flament and chief physician Dr Jos Opheide of the Belgian hospital Ziekenhuis Geel share their vision.
Reviewing the healthcare model
'The pandemic has made it abundantly clear exactly how absurd the organisation of our healthcare system is', says Flament. 'What stands out immediately, is the illogical system of remuneration, where a physician's income is based on the influx of patients into their department. As a consequence, physicians with the 'right' specialty were able to charge more during the crisis, while others saw their income decrease as regular care was being postponed. Therefore, fixing the revenue model of our healthcare professionals is imperative. It should no longer be based on the influx of patients, but more on the production of health.'
There is also room for improvement on the medical side of healthcare, Opheide states: 'A crisis like this reveals the heart of the problem. The public can see that we actually don't have a solution: we have no medicine that cures COVID patients. The fact of the matter is, it is 'just' a coronavirus, and yet the entire world has come to a standstill. When talking about the approach to COVID-19, virologists, epidemiologists, and physicians almost exclusively focus on the virus itself. Nobody seems to look into strengthening our own immune systems, which have been weakened by a lack of sleep, stress, vitamin deficiency, and poor nutrition.'
'In the past, medicine has achieved a lot just by injecting strange substances into the patients to restore their systems. Medicine today, however, no longer meets the requirements of the clinical picture we are being confronted with. Not only is the model outdated, but also no longer viable. Approximately 80% of our resources are spent on chronic diseases. And yet there is no chronic disease that can be treated, let alone cured, by our classical approach to medicine. Hence, we should be investing in healthcare that allows the prevention of those chronic disorders.'
Classical medicine versus a holistic approach
Opheide continues: 'Classical medicine excels in treating symptoms. An example is the syndrome X, which presents itself through poor fat values in the blood, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. If you go to your GP for one of these four complaints, they will treat you solely for that complaint. However, we know that those four symptoms are caused by sugar intake. If you drastically reduce this intake, you won't need any medication. The problem is that no one financially benefits from that method. In fact, the opposite is true.'
He has a clear vision of the direction we need to take. 'Instead of entrenching ourselves, medicine should be prepared to look at the findings of science. We should approach healthcare in a more holistic manner by considering the total picture. An individual physician's knowledge is very fragmented. That is not an insult, but a mere fact. No-one's brain is capable of comprehending a patient's complete biochemical picture - hormone levels, enzymes, genes, minerals, blood pressure, cholesterol - and recognise patterns therein. Only a computer can do that.'
'A lot of conditions remain undetected because we don't know or recognise them. IT solutions will ensure that we will have more and more data available and, using AI, will give meaning to that data. As such, more data means a more accurate diagnosis, which will lead, in turn, to better treatments for patients. That is the future of medicine.'
'Individualised healthcare will become the new reality. Every patient is unique, with their own biochemical individuality that has to be taken into account. Currently, however, we are barely able to develop medication that successfully responds to our biochemical imbalance. It's shocking to see how many people take certain medication and only experience the side effects. When we finally realise that conditions do not have a single identifiable cause, we will also understand that one little pill will not make a noticeable difference. What you will have to do, is neutralise the various underlying factors to the best of your abilities.'
Flament: 'The individualisation of healthcare also has to take place in the non-medical part of the care process. We have to differentiate through innovation; if an eighty-year-old patient comes to the hospital, someone will be ready at the door with a wheelchair, and when a twenty-five-year-old patient enters the hospital, their presence will simply be known, registered, and visible to the physician without any interaction required.'
Healthcare of the future
Flament concludes: 'The healthcare system is under financial and societal pressure and the pandemic has made this very apparent. Healthcare providers nowadays mostly make a profit from the derived activities of healthcare. At the same time, we are putting more money towards the preventive maintenance of our vehicles than preventive healthcare for our own children. We need to evolve to individual healthcare management in which we are in control of our health, but, as with our vehicles, we can also trust and rely on experts and specialists to guide and advise us.'
'In the future, patients will not have to go to a hospital for every little thing, but will, for example, occasionally go to a location where a physician is present', Opheide predicts. 'That physician will have access to an IT system on his computer that contains all of the patient's medical data. AI will be used to look at that data, and to indicate potential risks for the patient, what has to be examined, and what advice the physician should give the patient. The doctors of the future will be IT experts.'
By implementing innovative IT support, Ziekenhuis Geel has taken a major step in the direction of future-proof healthcare. With its electronic health record, the hospital wants to increase the efficiency of care processes for healthcare providers and further improve treatment of patients.