Innovation in healthcare

Report on the second edition of the Vlerick Healthcare Conference

Written by Sabine Rosseel, Project Manager at Decom, co-sponsor of the conference

In her opening speech ‘Care to change, change to care’, the Belgian Minister for Health Maggie De Block immediately set the tone: the healthcare sector is undergoing fundamental change. But how are hospitals coping with this? What does it mean in terms of ICT and process management? And what about regulation and financing?

At the centre of Maggie De Block’s opening speech was the future pact that the government has entered into with stakeholders from the healthcare sector. ‘The pact was organised over a six-month period. The striking thing about the process was that the discussions took place with total discretion, and that all parties demonstrated a true openness of spirit.’
The future pact focuses on four cornerstones: 

  • Accessibility for the patient
  • Growth and innovation
  • Deontology
  • Budget: sustainable and predictable

Innovation in hospitals

Three speakers from the hospital sector explained their approach to innovation.

Prof. Dr Marc Noppen (UZ Brussel): ‘Innovation is essential, but we should not forget the human touch’

Innovation is not an optional extra, but an essential. ‘The business model for our hospitals is too heavily biased towards volume, rather than towards value creation. A hospital’s ICT platform must be accessible to all parties involved, including patients. One in three portals with which UZ Brussels is currently working is directed at patients. This is already a good thing. But regardless of all the new developments that this will bring with it, we should not forget the human touch: ultimately, we are working with and for people.’

Prof. Dr Jan Kimpen (UMC Utrecht): ‘Fewer hospitals, but truly innovative’

‘The Netherlands currently has around 90 hospitals. In 10 to 15 years’ time, this number will be reduced to between 30 and 40, each of which will be at the forefront of research and technology. But healthcare will be given closer to the patient at home.’ UMC Utrecht has therefore decided to focus on six different areas, and in the meantime, has already developed four strikingly innovative technologies:

  • The VascoLuminator: needle tips are directed to precisely the right place every time because the device indicates exactly where the veins are;
  • The Whistler: an instrument that tests pulmonary function without requiring any effort from the patient – particularly useful for children;
  • MRI-based radiotherapy: delivers higher doses in real time without encroaching on healthy tissue;
  • Implant of an entirely 3D-printed skull.
Prof. Dr Luc Dirix (Sint-Augustinus, GZA): ‘Expertise is leaving the hospital’

Research into and treatment of cancer will also undergo fundamental changes. Examples include:

  • Tumour heterogeneity: tumour cells will be tested for a variety of different genes
  • Medicines will undergo new testing processes
  • New diagnostic strategies: functional imaging, minimal disease (at DNA level), predictive diagnosis, etc.
  • Precision medicine: even more closely tailored to the individual (e.g. chemo)
  • Centralisation (and decentralisation): clean room
  • New experts, e.g. bio-informatics specialists

What about ICT and process management?

Innovation in healthcare is impossible without harnessing ICT and rethinking processes. The key conclusions are listed below.

Prof. Dr Bjorn Cumps (Vlerick Business School): ‘Do not neglect the core of your ICT system’

‘As is the case in many sectors, ICT in healthcare also needs to move away from the silo mentality. ICT is often organised in an overly functional way, and is too closely interwoven into the organisational structure. The greatest challenge is therefore to ensure an agile implementation that strikes the right balance between efficiency, effectiveness and patient-orientation.’

Prof. Cumps’ three tips:

  • Filter: scan to identify what is relevant.
  • Bet on two horses: start out from a fixed, familiar core and experiment with new applications (e.g. apps).
  • Structure is not a synonym for bureaucracy!
Antoon van Luxemburg (M&I/Partners): ‘ICT is still too often an automation of internal processes’

Are the ICT investments made by Dutch hospitals cost-effective? According to the benchmark drawn up by the Dutch M&I, there is room for improvement:

  • 75% of ICT investment is spent on ICT staff and software
  • Hospitals’ maturity in terms of ICT is still overly focused on automating internal processes, and is insufficiently directed at the patient as the end user.
Prof. Dr Erwin Hans (University of Twente): ‘Variability management is crucial’

Operational management should also transcend the boundaries of a single department and embrace the challenge of integral process optimisation, e.g. one-stop-shopping for hospital patients. ‘It is remarkable that in many hospitals operational planning for the medium term is lagging behind, e.g. if you know that frost is approaching, you need to make sure that your processes are prepared for more patients with broken legs.’

Regulations and budget

Innovation is impossible without an appropriate regulatory framework and well-thought-out financing. During the Q&A session, we noted a number of pertinent observations made by the speakers.

Bart Vannieuwenhuyse (Janssen): ‘If medicines need to become available more quickly, then they also need to be developed more quickly and they must be made available to patients much faster, too – provided that there is better monitoring. The European EHR4CR and EMIF projects relate to this. Trust between all stakeholders is a crucial part of this.’
Prof. Dr Panos Kanavos (London School of Economics): ‘We must dare to conduct the social debate about value creation openly.’
Prof. Dr Walter Van Dyck (Vlerick Business School): ‘Innovation in healthcare can be financed by reviewing the repayment framework. We should also initiate a public debate on healthcare financing.’

Walter Van Dyck, Bart Vannieuwenhuyse and Panos Kanavos

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