Digital Health: How the Industry Can Overcome a Key Barrier

October 28, 2016

Rob Childs, Health Vertical Engagement Manager, GSMA

rc-bioThere can be little doubt that digital technology is fundamentally improving healthcare. The harnessing of IT and the conversion from paper to electronic health records has significantly improved the time and accuracy with which medical information can be retrieved, and was hailed as one most important medical advances of the decade. The last couple of years have seen a new development: the influx of wearable fitness devices. This has given people the opportunity to greatly increase their ability to manage and monitor their health by having access to real-time measurements such as heart-rate and distance travelled. According to research house IDC, such devices continue to grow in popularity, and will continue to do so as their cost decreases.

These developments, amongst others, are a signpost to the increasing value of data in healthcare; indeed, it is data and our use of it, that has the potential to revolutionise healthcare.

The advantages of sharing data across medical institutions and platforms has already been demonstrated. For example, last year’s operator-led mHealth Grand Tour enabled cyclists with diabetes new ways in which they could monitor their performance and condition. The data from blood-glucose meters, heart monitors and distance trackers was integrated and displayed on a single smartphone app, and the users could choose to share this data with healthcare professionals who could monitor their health condition remotely.

There are good reasons to expect near real-time analysis and remote monitoring to become a staple feature of healthcare in the not-to-distant future. We know this because even those who aren’t aware of this technology would  far rather be treated in their own home.

This point was a key theme of the Connected Health 2016 Symposium, hosted in Boston earlier this month. Here, experts discussed the growing demand –particularly amongst the elderly population- for patient-centric care, whereby point of treatment comes to the patient, rather the patient going to the treatment.

This demand is taking place against the backdrop of rising healthcare costs and increasing strain on public healthcare services across the globe. According to PwC, healthcare costs in the U.S. are projected to rise by 6.5% in 2017 – significantly outpacing general economic inflation. They suggest that the consequence of this will be ‘a recalibration on cost-saving strategies’.

PwC also suggest that digital health solutions will be a key factor in providing more cost-effective healthcare. They estimate that Digital Health could save €99 billion in healthcare costs to the EU, or $14 billion USD in Brazil and $3.8 billion USD in Mexico, if it reaches scale.

The extent to which digital health solutions can be implemented depends on the industry adopting common standards for sharing data. Both industry and governments have recognised this and are proactively attempting to establish standards for using medical data securely, and in a manner that protects patients’ privacy. For example, earlier this year, the United Kingdom’s Department of Health released a statement highlighting how this was integral to the growth of digital health.

Whilst this is positive step towards realising digital health, the sector is having to respond to the complexities of implementation. The sector’s organisations and the standards they have developed, can be combined but require a high level of understanding of their application.

And herein lies one of the key challenges in attempting to connect digital health solutions, and one of the findings of the GSMA’s recent report ‘Digital Healthcare Interoperability’. The report also identifies further challenges around interoperability that are inhibiting implementation. For example, Hospital 1 uses the HL7 standard v2.x, and Hospital 2 uses v3.0 of the HL7 standard, where backward compatibility is absent. Therefore, to combine these systems a bespoke solution would need to be developed, which will most likely be paid for by the healthcare provider.

The study stresses that interoperability is an essential requirement in ensuring that data exchanged across devices and systems is understood, interpreted and acted upon in the correct manner. The GSMA report suggests various solutions which could help steer the industry towards interoperability. Governments can help drive adoption by encouraging procurers to specify open standards in their medical device and healthcare ICT system acquisitions, while the mobile industry can help by advising on the application of standards and by working with their healthcare industry partners to deliver services based on the principles of interoperability.

Furthermore, organisations such as the Personal Connected Health Alliance (PCHA), with their Continua Design Guidelines, are grouping standards together into profiles and helping to combine them into a single certifiable solution.

Although the journey towards interoperability -where all devices and systems can seamlessly connect- may be in its early stages, the identification of barriers and the means to overcome them is proof that the industry is on the right track. Moreover, as other sectors begin to feel the economic advantages of interoperable services, it will only be a matter of time before healthcare follows suit.


Those looking to engage more with digital health and the issue of interoperability can do so at the World of Health and IT (WoHIT) Conference & Exhibition, running from 21-22 November in Barcelona, Spain.

You can download the report, ‘Digital Healthcare Interoperability’, here. To discover more about how Mobile Network Operators can add value to digital health solutions, please visit


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