In the first of our series looking at healthcare services around the world, we speak to Fabian Alvarez, Vice President for Latin America at virtual care collaboration platform Pager, which is currently deployed throughout Colombia, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
How digitally advanced is healthcare in Latin America?
Healthcare systems vary significantly between each country, but in terms of digital advancements, primary care is an area that requires a great deal of improvement within the Latin American healthcare ecosystem.
Though there have been many recent advancements across the region, there continue to be major gaps between different countries. Some countries like Colombia are further ahead in the digital health adoption curve because the system has created a foundation where onsite primary care services are deemed trustworthy, resulting in patient confidence that has spilled over into the digital world.
Others, such as Mexico, have major medical insurance plans that don’t cover primary care consultations, so platforms that provide virtual primary healthcare services have an opportunity to make a large impact.
How do you see this evolving in the next 5-10 years?
In five to ten years, I expect to see healthcare systems better complemented in the digital world. I believe that by then, a much larger portion of services will be provided via virtual care platforms. As a result, services in the digital and non-digital realms will be able to work collaboratively, leading to increased access to quality healthcare.
Clinicians will also be more willing to adopt these digital services and will be more accustomed to operating out of a virtual office rather than having to use physical office space. In Colombia, for example, I have seen an increase in co-working spaces solely for doctors. Not only does this lower expenses, but it can also help lower healthcare costs.
How do you think digital healthcare will evolve for patients?
I don’t really see many constraints for patients when it comes to utilising digital platforms. The biggest hurdle to overcome is mobile coverage, particularly in more rural areas. Younger people are obvious early adopters, and older people are becoming more technologically inclined and are comfortable using e-commerce and online banking and services.
I also see digital health increasing providers’ ability to offer unlimited access to virtual services no matter the location of the member. Lastly, I expect to see insurers making progress in the digital sphere by offering more tech-enabled services.
What is the best use of AI within Latin American healthcare systems?
I believe that there will be a high demand for AI in Latin America. AI is often viewed as a patient-first service, but the reality is that AI can be clinician-first in supporting caring for high volumes of patients. Pager’s platform is continuing to leverage this innovative approach to help scale the reach of clinicians offering digital services in Latin America.
Aside from that, AI and automation can make the biggest impact on the patient experience on the non-clinical side: many patients’ digital needs are administrative, rather than clinical. This includes accessing services, making a payment, purchasing a prescribed medication, and reviewing their plan details.
An AI-supported triage system, which can help identify a patient’s needs and route them to the correct form of care and caregiver, enables efficiency and scalability in order to support more individuals. This was especially impactful during major spikes of COVID-19, as evidenced by Pager’s work with SURA, a major integrated delivery network in Colombia.
When COVID-19 hit, Pager worked with SURA to quickly launch a COVID-19 Intake Bot to separate COVID and non-COVID conversations, helping to direct users to the right type of care for their needs. Providing this kind of virtual triage gives patients the opportunity to receive care from home and only visit in-person facilities when absolutely necessary.
Since SURA also has in-person care clinics throughout the country, the COVID-19 Intake Bot helped to ensure that they were not overburdened by directing patients to appropriate care, which they could often receive via telehealth visit. This ultimately lowered the wait times and risks for patients who needed non-COVID-related, in-person services.
What was the impact of the pandemic on Latin America?
Like in other countries, hospitals and brick-and-mortar facilities were overwhelmed by an influx of patients and ended up having significant capacity issues. Had more effective digital solutions been in place, a large volume of these patients could have been sufficiently treated at home, leaving space for those with chronic or emergency conditions to be treated onsite.
Overall, what key things need to change?
I think member engagement is a major area for improvement. The movement toward digital healthcare is impeded by the need to get insurance plans, governments, users, and clinicians to collectively engage in the digital world. The telemedicine regulations currently in place need to change so that companies trying to implement technology can use these services.
For example in Colombia, outside of the current public health emergency, doctors providing telemedicine are required to be in a clinic or other compliant facility. This is hugely restrictive when it comes to digital adoption by providers, as they are unable to provide care remotely or from home.