Medicine has yet to tap the potential of digitalisation

Despite digitalisation being a mainstay in many areas of life, the healthcare sector is lagging behind. Jörg Goldhahn explains what the medical field can learn from banks and travel companies.
The financial sector is ahead of medicine when it comes to digitalisation. (Photograph: Keystone-SDA / Laurent Gillierron)

I can use my phone to check how much I’ve paid into my pension plan down to the last penny, buy a car online with just a couple of clicks, track how much electricity the solar panels on my roof produce from minute to minute and exchange private messages with each of my friends. But recently, as I was getting ready to go on holiday, I had to make sure I packed my paper vaccination passport because it contains information that I don’t have anywhere in digital form. In Switzerland, the security debacle concerning the country’s online vaccination passport portal further called into question the reliability of digital data management in healthcare. It seems that paper will remain paper.

Going abroad on holiday is by no means the only scenario in which it would be helpful to be able to access my healthcare information online, just like I can with my bank account. Why is it that banks have no trouble pulling off this complex digital transformation, while for the healthcare system it seems to be a mammoth and largely unmanageable task to which there is no solution? Granted, banks have a lot more money to play with. But the fact remains that they know what it means to be efficient. Their customers are now integrated into the workflow, dutifully making their own bank transfers online. This actually lowers costs, which in turn feeds the bank’s profits. Alternatively, these savings are passed on to customers, as in the case of international transfers at the insistence of the EU.

«The medical field is saving neither time nor money through digitalisation – and if it is, these savings are not being passed on.»      Jörg Goldhahn

As we know, the financial sector isn’t alone in this regard. In response to mounting cost pressure, the travel industry also recognised early on that digitalisation was the only way forward. Customers benefit from better offers and prices. Today, it’s also essential that travel operators be able to push a button and determine where people are in the world, should a crisis arise with a need for prompt action.

The above examples highlight just how massively different the healthcare system is: at the moment, the medical field is saving neither time nor money through digitalisation – and if it is, these savings are not being passed on.

Unfortunately, in many areas where digital technology is used, there has been little evidence to date that it is saving us anything at all. But the effects could actually be wide-ranging indeed: digital technologies would save time in everything from diagnosing and treating patients to operational workflows in hospitals. Money can be saved both by reducing immediate costs and avoiding follow-up costs or duplicate tests. There are also a variety of potential efficiency gains to be had in human resources. What would be ideal is if each new digital solution yielded at least one real saving. And that saving must also be passed on – ideally to patients.

Further information

Jörg Goldhahn is a professor at the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich.

He wrote this article together with his colleague Anja Finkel for Schweizerische Ärztezeitung, a publication for the Swiss medical community.