Data and connectivity issues hamper healthcare's digital evolution


The more health data our wearable devices can collect, the more analysis can be done, possibly leading to interventions that could help enhance our health. — dpa

Let's talk about the Digital Economy Blueprint (DEB), which was recently launched by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

While it may seem an odd choice for a health column, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only illustrated the many ways in which digital technology has impacted our lives, but also accelerated its adoption.

The healthcare sector is one of the key areas that will continue to digitally evolve in many ways.

The DEB seeks to set the landscape for Malaysia to become a high-value-add digital economy and net exporter of homegrown technologies and digital solutions.

It also aims to improve the lives of Malaysians through digital advancement and economic growth driven by digital tech.

There are many stated initiatives, but the strategic thrusts have been narrowed down to the following:

  • To drive digital transformation in the public sector for enhanced and effective public service delivery.
  • To push for digitalisation in the private sector as a way to boost economic competitiveness and ultimately position Malaysia as a destination for digital economy-related investments and activities.
  • Building high quality and extensive accessible digital infrastructure as the foundation for economic, social and governmental transformation.
  • Developing competent digital talent through digitalisation at various levels of education, along with up-skilling and reskilling of the existing workforce.
  • Creating an inclusive digital society by narrowing the gap in the digital divide and ensuring equitable access to opportunities and information for all.
  • Building a secure and ethical digital environment to ensure safety, privacy, security, reliability and data ethics in data services.
Arguably all are important to healthcare, but none more basic and important than connectivity and data.

Connectivity

The fundamental problem we face is that not all areas are digitally connected equally.

Besides rural areas that do not have any connection at all, the bandwidth provided in areas that do have connectivity varies.

This is despite the fact that Malaysians are likely to pay double the cost of data fees for half the speed, compared to other countries in the region, according to a Citibank report.

In order to grasp the full opportunities of digital technology, Malaysians must have cheaper access to the Internet in order to attain the level of critical mass that will make downstream investments both viable and attractive.

Why is this important?

Imagine all the possibilities for healthcare that can be realised if there was fast, reliable and accessible connectivity, especially with 5G.

5G technology offers high bandwidth and low latency – in other words, a lot of data can be transferred with very little delay.

In the context of healthcare, medical images and data that can be shared quickly and with minimal fuss, will allow greater accessibility to medical services.

The pandemic has increased the awareness of telemedicine, of which we have barely scraped the surface of possibilities.

It has the potential to reduce inequality, as medical resources are not evenly spread physically.

Greater network speeds will allow healthcare workers to engage patients remotely at home or in rural clinics.

Procedures such as ultrasound tests and robotic surgeries can be done remotely too, if there are no concerns regarding buffering or network disconnections.

The reduced physical contact enabled by this is of even greater importance when we take quarantine measures into account.

5G will also enable massive Internet Of Things (IOT) use.

There are increasing options for wearables, i.e. electronic devices that can be worn as accessories, embedded in clothing, implanted in the body or even tattooed on the skin.

These can both send and receive data, which can also be used by both sender and receiver.

We are increasingly familiar with wearable devices that measure our physical activities and physiological parameters such as our heart rate.

The more data that is gathered, the more analysis can be done.

These can lead to interventions as diverse as a warning for when your heart rate has breached a certain limit, all the way to personalised notifications for what to eat and when to change your jogging shoes.

Data

It is estimated that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily.Remote robotic surgery could become a real option for patients in rural areas if connectivity and buffering issues are sorted out. — 123rf.comRemote robotic surgery could become a real option for patients in rural areas if connectivity and buffering issues are sorted out. — 123rf.com

Ninety percent of this was created over the last two years alone, and the volume of data is estimated to double every two years.

All the data collected through the Internet has to go somewhere and be stored securely.

This is where cloud technology comes into play.

Cloud computing is more than just about saving your photographs; it’s about the delivery of various types of services through the Internet.

By saving data in a remote database, the user is not held back by the limitations of physical storage devices.

As long as a device has access to the Internet, it will have the necessary access to the data and software programmes.

Data is often referred to as the new oil.

Besides economic value – the Big Data industry is estimated to be worth an estimated US$77 billion (RM318bil) by 2023 – data is similar to oil in that it is only useful once it is kept properly, refined/analysed and has a suitable infrastructure for dissemination.

Just like oil, there are tremendous opportunities, but also big risks.

In an ideal world, our healthcare data would be shared seamlessly between clinics and doctors, without the need for us to carry around hard copies of our blood tests, imaging and medication list.

We would be utilising wearables that can share real time data with our doctors, who can then preemptively offer advice or a necessary prescription.

Just as how Netflix is able to alter recommendations based on big data analysis and artificial intelligence, the same can be done for our bodies.

Having said that, when it comes to sensitive biometric and health data, we have to ensure that the data is protected from misuse.

The sixth strategic thrust in the DEB is focused on building a trusted, ethical digital environment, which safeguards privacy.

The trust deficit can only be allay-ed if specific measures are taken to increase public trust in the use of personal data by the government.

This includes independent Parliamentary overview of data use and bringing forward the review of the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) from the current planned date of 2025.

The latter is especially important as the government should not be exempt from the PDPA and full implementation of a National Digital ID will require substantial legal and ethical considerations.

Equity

Healthcare is considered by many to be a human right, and the degree of inequality will be exacerbated if we do not ensure that digital technology development is done in a just manner.

As shared by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed at a recent forum organised by the Social & Economic Research Initiative (Seri): “Covid-19 has forced educational, social and economic interactions into online spaces.

“Through this blueprint, we aim to digitalise our public sector, build digital infrastructure, develop our workforce to be digital-ready, boost our economy and foster a more inclusive society.

“We must ensure no one is left behind.”

The DEB sets the right tone in terms of aspirations and philosophy, but as always, the devil is in the details.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and the biggest challenge is not with coming up with the blueprint, but in implementing it.

Dr Helmy Haja Mydin is a consultant respiratory physician and chief executive officer of Seri, a thinktank dedicated to evidence-based policies. For further information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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