Medical technologies driving healthcare costs down

Andrew Thelwell

Andrew Thelwell

According to the World Health Organisation, the global average life expectancy increased by more than six years between 2000 and 2019 while the population grew by more than one billion. This, combined with rising cases of health conditions associated with diabetes and obesity, are putting healthcare systems under pressure to treat an increasing population suffering with sustained illnesses.

Medical professionals must often choose between curing a patient of a condition or simply managing it over time to ensure they can live the best life possible. Many treatment plans are designed to monitor people’s illnesses, not necessarily cure them. This ‘maintenance approach’ means patients require ongoing treatment from their healthcare provider, which is more costly and time-consuming than curing a condition. For medical conditions which are difficult to cure, such as diabetes and chronic wounds, the situation is more complex.

Frequent care leads to higher costs

In the case of chronic wounds such as leg and foot ulcers, the wound will need cleaning and re-dressing sometimes as often as three times a week to avoid infection. Wounds can take months to close, if they even heal at all, requiring a lot of time and resources from medical staff. Treating the wound over time, however long that is, can therefore cost a lot of money.

According to a 2006 report by the Wound Healing Society, chronic wounds – including pressure ulcers, diabetic ulcers, venous ulcers, and arterial insufficiency ulcers – are becoming more frequent as the global population is living longer. Venous leg ulcers (VLU) alone are estimated to affect up to 3 per cent of the global adult population.

As the modern world becomes more populated, and as conditions such as diabetes and obesity are rising, cases of chronic wounds are expected to increase further. Healthcare systems will therefore need to dedicate more time and resources towards wound treatment; however, this will increase the costs associated with treating these patients.

Wound treatment already costs global healthcare systems billions each year: treating VLU costs the US approximately $3 billion, while treating leg ulcers in the UK costs the NHS £1.94 billion. These costs are largely attributable to nurse visits and the bandages and dressing needed for treatment.

Until recently, the ‘maintenance approach’ has been widely adopted for treating chronic wounds. However, medical technology (MedTech) is introducing new methods of treatment which are making healthcare systems more efficient and cost-effective.

Improving costs and patient care

Medical devices are allowing new methods of treatment to be implemented into healthcare systems around the world, particularly in the treatment for chronic illnesses such as leg ulcers and diabetes. MedTech is working alongside, and in some cases instead of, traditional methods of treatment. Such devices are speeding up patient recovery times, reducing the need for ongoing treatment and, crucially, decreasing costs for patients. This new breed of technology can also provide a permanent treatment to chronic medical conditions, rather than solely maintain a patient’s wellbeing over time.

Integrating new devices within healthcare systems is not an easy process. It can take decades of consistent work and requires a lot of money, clinical data, regulatory approval and backing from clinicians within the system. MedTech devices are also required to meet regulatory approval before they can be implemented into healthcare systems; the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are two of the world’s leading regulation services and help to set standards for healthcare across the globe.

MedTech devices, such as Sky Medical Technology’s geko™ device, can be used in the treatment of leg ulcers. Clinical data has found that increasing blood flow to the wound surface, thereby enhancing oxygen and nutrient delivery, ulcers can eventually be cured rather that treated and monitored over time. Sky Medical Technology’s wearable geko™ device sits behind a patient’s knee and sends short, painless electrical pulses down the leg to promote blood flow equal to 60 per cent of walking. This in turn increases circulation, reduces swelling and accelerates wound healing allowing the wounds to close in a matter of weeks as opposed to months or not at all.

Now approved and regulated devices are being implemented by forward-thinking clinicians to treat conditions such as leg ulcers, significantly reducing the financial and staffing strains on healthcare systems, all while improving patient outcomes.

Implementing devices into evolving healthcare systems

The challenges that drivers of MedTech innovation now face involve finding ways to reward innovation and risk without tearing up what already exists: how can we adopt new and improved solutions into existing treatment plans without causing harm, wasting time or losing money?

The vast differences in healthcare systems around the world make this particularly complicated, especially in terms of costs. Healthcare payments vary depending on the type of treatment a patient needs, how long treatment can take, whether the patient can access public or private healthcare, and in some cases whether the patient is a native or an expatriate.

Many healthcare systems across the world, including the U.S. and parts of the Middle East, have traditionally operated under a ‘fee for service’ payment scheme. This means each healthcare provider gets paid separately for each service they provided. For instance, if a nurse attended a patient’s home to redress a wound, that is one cost; if a patient needed a specialist assessment, that would be another, separate cost.

Under this model, healthcare providers get paid regardless of whether the service leads to a positive patient outcome, including for treating a leg ulcer over time that does not ever heal. For the growing number of global patients suffering with chronic conditions who require long-term care management, especially wound care, this can result in extensive medical bills.

Fee for quality

However, many of these healthcare systems are shifting towards a ‘fee for quality’ or episode-based approach. Under these systems, patients will pay for the quality of care they receive irrespective of how long and how often treatment is needed. Healthcare systems can predetermine the best products and approaches for treatment based on medical evidence, enabling patients to access the best quality and most cost-effective care, making it fairer and more effective for both providers and patients.

This should – in theory – help to ease the pressure on healthcare systems which are having to treat an increasing number of individuals with chronic illnesses. The sooner patients can be treated and cured, more patient beds will be available, fewer nurse visits will be required and less resources will be needed.

Better healthcare for all

A less expensive, more efficient treatment plan for patients will allow healthcare systems to provide the best care possible – seeking to adopt medical innovation with the aim of curing a patient’s illness as quickly and effectively as possible.

MedTech is uniquely placed to bring about positive change across global healthcare systems. Instead of trying to ensure adoption of new innovations within the confines of the previous system, healthcare systems are changing to actively foster adoption.

This important shift will not only enable more investment in the development of new medical technologies, but in turn will help lessen the pressure on the entire healthcare operation – creating a brighter, more effective, and affordable system for all.

Note: The author is the Chief Commercial Officer at Sky Medical Technology