Kyle Swan

Are Technological Solutions the Answer to America’s Healthcare Access Problems?

The United States has the greatest per capita healthcare spending in the world, but patient health outcomes have not received a proportional benefit when compared to other countries of similar economic status.1 Although measures like the Affordable Care Act have attempted to deal with aspects of the healthcare system such as insurance coverage as a means of access,2 other issues needing to be resolved have largely been ignored: a workforce shortage of physicians decreases ease of public access to medical care which disproportionately affects certain areas;3 the inability to get access to healthcare when needed prevents many from going to the doctor’s office and often leads to more emergency room visits, clogging hospitals and leading to many patients having medical issues that more proactive care could prevent;4 lack of access to healthcare providers in certain areas, particularly in rural areas, is also a growing problem, reducing access and the likelihood of positive healthcare outcomes for those patients.5 The failure of conventional measures to resolve these issues is driving new market entrants which seek alternative means to ensure adequate and efficient public healthcare access.

China is currently facing problems with healthcare access similar to the United States. Chinese hospitals are likewise overburdened, leaving physicians overworked and unable to provide proper care to their patients.6 Rural areas also lack adequate access to healthcare, and resources are unevenly distributed with more concentration in provincial capitals.7 Chinese technology companies, including Tencent Holdings Limited and e-commerce-giant Alibaba Group, have entered into the healthcare space and are seeking to provide technological solutions to problems with healthcare access and outcomes.8 In the United States, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase have followed these Chinese companies’ lead and created a partnership called “Disrupt Healthcare” to find innovative solutions to problems in the healthcare system for their employees.9 Although still in the gestational stage, many expect Disrupt Healthcare to be able to reduce healthcare costs and improve access by integrating technologies such as mobile devices, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence into the healthcare system.10

Mobile devices are already in use, to some extent, to improve healthcare access, and their role is expected to expand.11 Numerous apps exist to streamline patient-physician interaction and improve the ease of access to healthcare.12 The ability to contact a healthcare provider for consultation via mobile device can be a boon for patients with limited time to visit the doctor’s office, particularly in rural areas where travel over a significant distance may be needed to acquire the medical care needed.13 Although there may currently be issues with diagnosing and treating  acute medical problems that require a physical exam over a mobile device, the technology can still assist those with chronic medical issues in managing their conditions, saving both time and money for patient and healthcare provider.14

Artificial intelligence also has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of the healthcare system and relieve overburdened physicians. Image recognition software may automate some of the processes currently performed by humans and potentially catch things that humans may overlook.15 Artificial intelligence can help provide more accurate diagnosis and improve patient outcomes through early detection of disease. Google is currently developing artificial intelligence software meant to predict patient outcomes the moment they are admitted, increasing patients’ chances of positive outcomes and reducing overall healthcare costs.16 It has partnered with several medical research institutions to explore how machine learning protocols can help clinicians diagnose conditions like breast cancer as well as predict medical events—such as whether patients will be hospitalized, how long they will stay, and whether their health is deteriorating despite treatment.17 Google is seeking to anticipate needs before they arise, preventing healthcare-associated infections, problems with medications, and unplanned hospital readmissions, which affect hundreds of thousands of people and cost billions of dollars just in the United States.18 Although many artificial intelligence solutions are far from being implemented, the potential future applications can greatly increase the efficiency of the healthcare system, lower costs, improve outcomes, and subsequently improve healthcare access.

These technologies are meant to alleviate the heavy burden on the healthcare system of providing adequate access and care to all, regardless of geographic location or circumstance. Those who have the worst access to healthcare now can expect to benefit most from implementing technological solutions to the problems plaguing the healthcare industry. Google, Amazon, and other large technology companies are making headway in addressing many of these healthcare access and quality issues. By directing their resources and expertise to the healthcare system, technology companies can revolutionize the healthcare industry, modernize patient access to healthcare providers, and ultimately improve patient health outcomes where the more traditional players in United States healthcare industry have previously foundered in search of workable solutions.

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2018; University of Virginia, B.A. 2014. ©2018, Kyle Swan.