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We’re two steps away from democratized, on-demand health care

This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series: AI and the future of health care


Consumers are getting used to and expecting more and more control over their services. Disruptive companies like Uber, Grubhub, and Instacart have shifted the paradigm: a consumer no longer must seek out and go to a service; rather, the service makes itself available immediately and comes directly to the consumer. This paradigm shift expanded choice and put more control of the service in the consumer’s hand — all the while notifying them with updates and changes to the service in real time.

Consumers no longer need to check into hotels or carry their room key. They no longer need to go to the check-in counter at the airport or wait in line at the car rental kiosk. The technology has reached a point where it can be utilized by non-technical consumers to receive extremely convenient, robust, and integrated services. This shift in the way these services are accessed has been generally referred to as the “democratization of goods and services.”

So where is healthcare in this evolution? Finding and utilizing healthcare services can be a vague and foggy proposition for most patients. There is an almost impossible mix of insurance networks, hospital networks, private providers, pharmacies, equipment suppliers, and labs that the patient must navigate.

But we can do better. Over the last two decades, the technology has certainly developed to a place where healthcare can be democratized in the way other, much simpler services have already (see the Timeline below).

Three main components are necessary for democratized, on-demand healthcare to happen:

  1. Standard data formats so that disparate systems can communicate with one another.
  2. A cost effective, highly scalable, robust backend infrastructure to handle the amount of necessary data securely and safely.
  3. A trusted distribution model that allows consumers to access and pay for the service in a familiar way.

We should see these components rolled out in 2 steps.

Step 1: Consolidation

Healthcare records have to be consolidated to provide patients with easier and faster access to all their medical information. One of the biggest players in this space is Apple, which works with healthcare institutions to build an application that consolidates patients’ medical records. Institutions can register with Apple to build out the interoperability and interface of their apps. Then, they can offer patients the ability to download and register for the app, which provides a one-stop-shop for all medical records.

The biggest hurdle that needs to be overcome is the diversity of ways in which healthcare institutions send data. “Health Level Seven” (HL7) provides a standardized data format, which helps with consolidating records, but that doesn’t mean providers can build out one interface for all types of records. There are still different versions of HL7 that different institutions use.

A number of companies besides Apple are working to solve pieces of this problem, but they are limited either to particular health care systems or providers who specifically sign up for the service. Real democratization will start to happen when these services are combined and are agnostic of specific software systems and hospital networks, or can go beyond groups of participating providers who sign up for the service. That can only happen when a company has the massive amount of resources needed to integrate all of the disparate systems. The tools and technology are now available, but there is a lot more work to be done.

Another major hurdle is patient trust. Patients will be hesitant to allow consolidation of their medical records because they don’t want their information to be too connected. They’ll fear not only data breaches but also their private information being used for marketing or research purchases, especially since medical information is so sensitive. To alleviate patient concerns, providers must give patients a clear privacy policy, with the ability to opt in or out of having outside companies access their data.

Step 2: Visibility

Another key step is expanding the visibility of healthcare institutions so that patients can easily view services, pricing, and availability. A mobile app, for example, can allow providers to sign up on its network. Patients can put their ailment in the app and see all the providers in their area offering services for that ailment, along with pricing and availability. Through this app, patients will have more visibility and control over finding the right provider. This technology will also drive market prices down because it’ll encourage transparent competition.

One can imagine how beneficial this technology will be in helping with health crises such as the one the world is experiencing currently with COVID-19. Knowing all the available options for testing, getting test results immediately on your phone, notification of when and where to get vaccinated, as well as proving negative tests and receipt of vaccinations are very real challenges that we are facing today. The technology is ready to make all this as easy as summoning an Uber driver for the patient.

We are on the cusp of the democratization of healthcare. It is not only possible but hugely beneficial. It will alleviate the stress of navigating the healthcare system, give the patient more choice in service and cost, and help drive healthcare costs down overall by driving more competition in the marketplace.

Damon Altomare is Chief Technology Officer of VIP StarNetwork, which is changing how the film industry offers healthcare benefits and increases healthcare access.

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