As healthcare organizations move forward on the pathway to embracing digitization, looking back can help us all to understand what’s in store for the future. Insight, after all, calls for not just a full view of the future but a full view of the past as well. And for me, there couldn’t be a more fitting time for a health tech retrospect than right now, as I pay homage to my late Step Father, who died last week and who would have turned 80 this week.

He was a doctor and, having begun his practice in 1964, was witness to some of the greatest medical achievements in history. Following a parallel route was the evolution of IT in healthcare, to which he was also a participatory witness. In the 54 years since my Step Father first practiced medicine, the medical world has seen a few tech revolutions but none as far-reaching and significant as what’s happening today with artificial intelligence.

My Step Father’s Medical World: a Foundation for Today’s Healthtech Evolution

IT in healthcare systems is nothing new, but today’s pace of change is unprecedented. IT tech advancement in the 1960’s ranged from first-wave evolutionary changes automating administrative tasks to second-wave changes like the first digital patient records.

Like other physicians of the era, my Step Father wouldn’t have had much to do with the automation of payroll and accounting tasks, but he surely felt the impact of the digitization of patient records, which really took off in the 1970s. It was this era of IT adoption that really paved the way for today’s amazing leaps forward in digitization. For example, the United States’ Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act and the UK’s National Programme for IT in the National Health Service are both made possible by the digital infrastructure built during my Step Father’s time of practice.

From Merely Automating Tasks to Making Smarter Choices

During the decades when my Step Father was practicing medicine, he would have seen technology advancing toward faster and more efficient processes. Paper files would give way to electronic records stored on huge mainframe computers. Those huge mainframes would give way to smaller versions as computer chips shrank and capacity grew.

But the real shift is yet to come: when the vast network of heretofore isolated systems can become interconnected for a true digital network. And the new benefactors won’t just be healthcare personnel — they will be the patients themselves:

  • Better treatment as providers get a wider, deeper, more holistic view of a patient’s full record
  • More insight, as stakeholders apply artificial intelligence to mass stores of privacy-protected patient data to more fully understand the world of medicine
  • Innovation as developers create apps to collect a richer, more robust body of data on patients, including lifestyle data and that data is fed to AI systems

The ability for providers to share electronic medical records across previously siloed industries and isolated professional islands is the future of healthcare. Patients, providers, and researchers alike are warming up to the idea of the digital environment in healthcare. Two of the few remaining obstacles are the matters of security and privacy. We’ll keep our eyes on blockchain as one possible solution and comprehensive legislation as a necessity.

The latter is partly where I and other privacy/security specialists come in. It’s a fitting journey for me to be making, as I say goodbye to the man who led me through my youth and into adulthood. Our worlds will forever be entwined, even in our work, as my world of privacy legislation merges with his world of medicine and the evolving world of health tech. As has always been the case, in whatever we do and whoever we are, from out of our past, there goes the future.

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