If asked why they downloaded the Hong Kong government’s eHealth app, many people would probably say it was only to maintain their vaccination records during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the government wants to revamp the app to popularise its use.
Permanent Secretary for Health Thomas Chan Chung-ching recently announced the upcoming launch of the new eHealth+ system in the second half of this year. It aims to connect the entire healthcare ecosystem, including hospitals, primary healthcare service providers and citizens. The goal is to empower people to better manage their health and locate suitable medical services.
Using technology to upgrade our healthcare system has been a long time coming. Public receptiveness towards digital healthcare has risen in the past three years as the pandemic turned our world view on its head.
However, the motivation to use such solutions, no matter how well-designed, is not nearly as strong as using them to adhere to social distancing protocols. With millions having already downloaded the eHealth app, adding functionality can help get the most out of the existing user base.
In a way, the government needs to answer the call for upgrades to the existing architecture. Consumers are becoming less tolerant of ossified legacy systems that don’t support data transferability. How many have had the experience of rummaging through old files for physical records because of a lack of digital copies?
The digitisation of healthcare systems has benefits beyond cost savings. It enables the processing and retention of health information, generating vast amounts of data suitable for interdisciplinary cross-pollination, detailed data analysis and research output. Moreover, digital healthcare systems give people better security and control over their own records, enabling them to take charge of their health.
These developments mean the healthcare industry is brimming with new opportunities. For example, generative AI tools are being used in the US to summarise medical conversations from recorded audio during patient visits, helping reduce the time doctors spend writing notes. Being open to innovation allows healthcare systems to become more efficient and cost-effective while giving doctors time to focus on patient-centred care.
The government’s proposed improvements can achieve an even loftier goal. The city’s healthcare system has consistently been ranked among the best. For people choosing to relocate and work in the Greater Bay Area, access to top-quality healthcare – similar to Hong Kong’s – is likely to be a strong motivator.
In 2015, meanwhile, the Hong Kong government began allowing eligible elderly folk to use healthcare vouchers to pay for outpatient fees at the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital.
This is only a small sample of the opportunities, though. To achieve scale and improve the lives of thousands of daily cross-border travellers, data must move seamlessly across all platforms in the Greater Bay Area – an ambition consistent with the goals stipulated in the Outline Development Plan for the region.
As it evolves, Hong Kong’s eHealth+ system can pull ahead in the race to achieve regional unity for medical data. It might even serve as a template for other Greater Bay Area cities and better connect us with our neighbours.
There are numerous advantages in universalising and digitising healthcare systems in Hong Kong. Doing so would boost the city’s digital economy and mitigate growing healthcare expenses, though concerns about privacy issues and data leaks must be addressed.
Another issue in developing a digital health strategy is that the benefits often only arrive after years of investment. Healthcare officials have said it could take up to a decade to overhaul Hong Kong’s healthcare system and move it away from an overreliance on hospitals. These problems must be taken seriously.
As we enter the post-pandemic era with three years of painful experience fresh in our minds, we are long overdue for a data-friendly ecosystem that can direct Hong Kong’s response should another public health emergency arise. Calls for greater efficiency and better patient ownership in our healthcare system are getting louder.
However contentious it might seem at times, the relationship between technology and healthcare is a symbiotic one. The new eHealth+ system can help score some quick wins to help boost adoption in the city.
It is too early to tell whether this new system can fulfil its promise as an example of how we can work with technology to inspire a needed overhaul of Hong Kong healthcare. With new technology being released and adopted almost every day, though, we are close to finding out.