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Untapped potential in digital health and well-being services

How far can the healthcare industry exploit digital services for everyone's benefit?


The lessons learned from Sitra’s practical trials on electronic self-care services were presented to health and social policymakers and MPs at Slush 2014.

In the future, your nearest healthcare centre could be located on your smartphone. Health and well-being mobile applications, consulting doctors via video calls and measuring one’s own vital signs already form a routine part of everyday life for many Finnish people. Preventive care and new approaches and services will play a growing role in solving future health issues. The healthcare sector must embrace the opportunities provided by new technologies without delay, because the society around it is already digitised, comments Sitra.

To explore customers’ future needs, over the last two years Sitra has been involved in practical trials of electronic self-care services in various parts of Finland. The lessons learned and the resulting new approaches were presented to an audience, comprising health and social policymakers and MPs, at the annual technology and start-up event, Slush, in Helsinki.

A survey by Sitra in 2013 showed that Finnish people want more electronic health and well-being services and service points, such as the health kiosk concept. They are tired of queuing at health centres and are calling for digital services with around-the-clock availability.

“Self-care services prioritise the customer, who draws up a personalised health plan with the assistance of healthcare professionals,” says Senior Lead Tuula Tiihonen of Sitra. “Until now, in health monitoring and care the customer him- or herself has been an almost completely untapped resource. Self-care brings health benefits to citizens and savings to society.”

Virtual clinic the electronic alternative to visiting a health centre

Harnessing digital medical data for extensive and active use in illness prevention will represent a major breakthrough for the health sector. One example of this is the virtual clinic service model co-developed by Sitra and its partners. In many situations, the model offers an electronic alternative to health centre visits and telephone consultations. The virtual clinic is a personal health management portal which analyses data held on medical records and health and well-being information gathered by the patient.

“At the moment, primary healthcare services have very little to offer to people who are well but at risk of falling ill,” says Tiihonen, explaining the background of the project.

The web-based service gives users access to automatic analyses based on medical data, treatment recommendations and observations concerning the user’s state of health, which can then be forwarded for use by the user’s local health centre or personal physician. In this way, healthcare professionals can gain an overall view of a patient’s medical history and state of health before the first appointment – if visiting a doctor is even necessary.

The features of the virtual clinic service model include a personal electronic health check-up and a preliminary assessment of the symptoms. Sitra recommends that healthcare e-services such as the virtual clinic be provided to everyone, free of charge, in the future.

“From the perspective of providing preventive care and prescribing medicines, it would be important to offer the option of including genome data in electronic check-up and assessment services, on the basis of a separate request by the service user,” says Tiihonen.

Shifting the focus from provision to solving demand-related problems

Sitra urges the system operators of healthcare e-services to adopt a similar mindset to that already adopted by service users. Self-care services designed to address a genuine need are supplementing, and increasingly acting as substitutes for, actual visits to the doctor. Customers welcome the presence of digital alternatives alongside traditional healthcare services.

“Healthcare should have a stronger focus on maintaining health. An illness may already have become severe by the time a cardiac patient contacts a doctor. This could be avoided if the patient has had a digital health check-up and, based on the results, has continuously monitored her pulse using a smart device, for example,” says Sitra Director Antti Kivelä.

Sidelining new services and devices means failing to reap the benefits of healthcare.

In addition to preventive care, equal access to health and social services must be safeguarded. That is why Sitra is offering a service package model aimed at delivering on the national service promise. The basic structure and content of the packages will be the same throughout the country, but the price and organisational method can vary regionally based on local conditions.

These service packages will also take account of the customers’ desire to use services via electronic channels.

“It is estimated that, in ten years’ time, almost half of initial visits to health centres could be replaced by e-services if we begin acting on this now,” says Kivelä. This will also help to save the time of healthcare professionals, which can then be devoted to patients with multiple or urgent health needs.

In Kivelä’s opinion, the modernisation of social welfare and healthcare services must be driven by demand and customer needs rather than supply. It also means that we should not hesitate to determine how much of that demand should be met by society. “This would be better than trying to manage the provision of services through various state-led solutions. A better understanding of how to manage demand is the key to successful social welfare and healthcare service reform”.

Finnish innovations put to good use

Growth companies in the Finnish health and well-being sector are a source of high-quality expertise that could be exploited more effectively in the modernisation of healthcare. A prime example raised at Sitra’s seminar was the Helsinki-based Meedoc. This service provides remote medical services via video calls, enabling people to consult a doctor from the comfort of their own home. Meedoc has already reshaped service provision by the Finnish Student Health Service (YTHS), which has been testing the remote consultation service throughout 2014, with excellent results.

“Start-ups have the latest knowledge, an open mindset and the ability to move quickly,” says Tiihonen. “Growth companies could take on an even bigger role in the implementation of structural changes. That is why we need new partnership and operating models aimed at expediting the integration of new innovations in public healthcare services.”

Finnish health technology exports have grown fourfold compared to 20 years ago and currently account for almost half of Finland’s high-tech exports.

Read more (in Finnish):

8 Omahoito-kokeilua terveyden tulevaisuudesta (SlideShare)
Virtuaaliklinikka – tulevaisuuden toimintamalli (SlideShare)

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