Finding healthcare remedies in telecoms

26 May 2015 | Gareth Willmer


The healthcare market will present multiple opportunities for carriers in the coming years, as medical providers seek to improve communication and the flow of information through means such as cloud services and the internet of things.

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Digital healthcare is all set to revolutionise patient care. Tapping into the vast swathes of data, medical providers are able to increase e­fficiencies, reduce costs and improve communications within hospitals.

Carriers are ideally positioned to support the trend, given their growing capabilities in Big Data and the rising volume of healthcare data using cloud services - approximately 80% of healthcare data worldwide will pass through the cloud at some point in its lifetime by 2020, predicts research company IDC.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) and the internet of things (IoT) are also creating significant opportunities. Sensors and wearable technology are being used to aid remote patient care by transmitting information ranging from blood pressure to blood-sugar levels, and helping to treat conditions from diabetes to cardiovascular disease in the comfort of patients’ own homes. In addition, IT is seen as a way to help cut escalating costs in the healthcare industry, a major concern driven partly by greater population longevity in many countries.

Cesar Rodriguez Dominguez, global e-health director at Telefónica, refers to the need to provide high-quality health services in the face of limited budgets, pointing out that the “new digital patient” demands not only information, but personalised attention and access to healthcare professionals with an online presence.

“These are crucial factors that trigger a deep review of traditional care models in order to make them sustainable,” says Dominguez. “There will be numerous opportunities for carriers, as they are the ones who have the capabilities to offer end-to-end digital health services.”

Like many other international carriers that have sensed the opportunity, Telefónica established a global business unit dedicated to e-health in 2010. Alongside the provision of platforms for aiding medical appointments, health advice and emergencies, and remote patient management and telemedicine services, the division is focussing on new models that bridge the communication gap between patients and medical professionals.

The latter, says Dominguez, “is a totally new market, where we have invested in a disruptive internet start-up, Saluspot, which connects users and doctors online. Saluspot is an online community where users can ask thousands of doctors any health question, or raise concerns for free, and then make online consultations where relevant”.

 

Data and cloud cures

Improvements are also being pursued as healthcare organisations seek better ways of storing data. “The opportunity for carriers lies in helping organisations better mobilise information and intelligence at the point of care, with personalised health data and intelligence distilled from Big Data,” says Karin Ratchinsky, director of healthcare strategy at Level 3.

Level 3 has a broad array of services in the sector, such as working with cancer research centres to connect their core sites for supporting genomic-modelling tools, helping hospitals to provide physicians with timely access to the applications they need, and deploying voice and contact centre services to enable telemedicine.

Some of its partners leverage its connectivity to support virtualised and cloud-type environments. Telecoms players and observers point out that investments in IT applications and changing healthcare regulation are creating a growing need for effective ways of storing and sharing documentation and patient data, and it is thought that cloud services could be a big part of the answer.

By way of example, Level 3 recently deployed Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud capabilities to a laboratory, resulting in patient data arriving at the point of care 87% faster.

Research company Frost & Sullivan identified Orange Business Services as a telco to watch in cloud-based healthcare. The carrier has established a number of partnerships in the healthcare space, such as its recent deal with medical and oral-care systems provider 3M for hosting medical applications and patient information using its Flexible Computing Healthcare cloud platform.

The service supports a scanner that offers oral digital scans and secure data transmission to centres that create prosthetic or orthodontic products on 3D printers.

“It’s an example we use a lot because it’s very visual and very simple to understand how cloud-computing technologies and 3D printing are going to quicken the path between diagnosis and cure,” says Benjamin Sarda, director of product marketing at Orange Healthcare.

 

Rise of the machines

IDC predicts that approximately 70% of global healthcare organisations will invest in consumer-facing mobile applications, wearables, remote health monitoring and virtual care by 2018 to help manage patients with chronic conditions.

This will in turn lead to more demand for Big Data and analytics to manage this growth.

Olivier Pauzet, vice president of marketing strategy at M2M device vendor Sierra Wireless, says healthcare is still relatively small compared to other M2M sectors, but expects growth opportunities in the coming years.

Examples he gives are small devices to help doctors monitor chronic conditions like diabetes or sleep apnoea by tracking information such as glucose levels and sleep patterns, rather than patients having to track and record their own everyday data themselves.

Pauzet adds that M2M can be used by insurance companies seeking ways to control the cost of delivering healthcare.

As a measure of growth in M2M connections, Verizon reported that it saw a 40% rise in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sector last year – compared to the 200% it saw in M2M connections in the manufacturing sector.

Nancy Green, global head of the healthcare segment at Verizon Enterprise Solutions, says that IoT applications can be used to resolve a lot of major problems, but points out that healthcare has many “big little problems” because of the wide variety of different needs in that sector.

“We don’t have that killer app in healthcare,” she says. She says however that there are plenty of opportunities in the overall sector and it is growing in promise for the future, signifying that the challenge is by no means insurmountable.

One obstacle for carriers is the wide variety of regulatory healthcare systems in different countries, with stringent requirements about how medical data can be used and contrasting insurance frameworks. ­This can create a challenge in running single strategies across multiple localities or countries.

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Charlotte Davies, an analyst at Ovum, notes that for telecoms companies, healthcare is often kept within national boundaries and domestic carriers are often strong in that segment because of their legacy position as an incumbent. She says that might start to change in the future, but it could take some time.

Apart from obstacles in moving data from one’s own premises to the cloud, there are also significant challenges associated with security and privacy when using such services.

Green refers, for example, to rules on protected health information in the US under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), meaning that the medical industry can be hesitant to put big applications in the cloud. As a result, they often prefer to use it for “back-office” applications such as email, business-continuity services and virtual disaster recovery.

Growing moves by hospitals to modernise and manage bandwidth for rising volumes of electronic health data, such as health records, video and medical images, are similarly creating a rising challenge in ensuring effective management of all this infrastructure.

“One challenge providers have is the increased complexity in managing these larger environments with limited resources and staff, as the industry becomes more connected and reliant on sharing health data and using mobile solutions to care for patients remotely,” says John Irwin, SVP of government, education and healthcare at AT&T Services.

Many providers say it is vitally important to take an end-to-end approach to ensure that every link in the chain is secure. Level 3, for example, works closely with major cloud providers such as Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS), HP and Google, having prioritised building to their key sites globally.

“This helps us to deliver point-to-point cloud solutions between healthcare provider networks and their cloud service provider of choice, equating to improved performance, latency and security from a network perspective,” says Ratchinsky.

And Orange says it is already well set up to meet the complexity of meeting varying regulations in different countries, having data centres in different markets that are ready-checked for compliance with local laws.

Isabelle Hilali, VP of marketing and strategy at Orange Healthcare, adds that one of the company’s keys to success is its significant experience in the medical arena and its strong understanding of both technology and healthcare, after launching the division that specifically looks at this sector eight years ago: “We’ve been in the business for a long time. It’s a complex business and you really need a lot of time to understand it.”

From a growth perspective, Hilali says that revenue from healthcare is small in comparison with the overall Orange Group, but that it will be a key contributor to group revenue within about three years.

 

Growth prospects

Acquisitions can help carriers gain expertise and credibility in the market.

Telstra, for instance, acquired UK-based health analytics firm Dr Foster at the end of March. The carrier had previously acted as the company’s exclusive reseller in Australia and its purchase now gives it greater control over such services.

“We saw it as a logical next step, acquiring not only a leading and innovative business, but also the experience and skills that will help us compete on the global stage,” says Shane Solomon, managing director at Telstra Health.

“Health analytics is a key ingredient to improving efficiency, safety and outcomes for patients, providers and health insurers.”

Ovum’s Davies explains that there has been a lot of e-health hype and false starts in telecoms, with solid results only starting to be seen more recently. “It’s really only over the last few years that they’ve started to have some tangible results and start to firm up what is a realistic strategy in a vertical like healthcare. Telehealth is gaining traction and will gather momentum over time.”

Observers say however that this could be a “long-term play” for carriers. Digital healthcare is also viewed as a major enabler for emerging economies.

Carriers such as Orange in Africa and Telefónica in Latin America are using their extensive footprints in these areas to expand e-health and establish new models, and it therefore presents multiple new opportunities.

Telefónica’s Dominguez points out how many millions of people in Latin America have no access to proper health services.

“Imagine how different their lives would be if they could have a doctor’s office their mobile phone for free,” he says.