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AHIMA International highlights leaders from across the globe during this unprecedented time and the impact of COVID-19 and the way ahead.

In our current environment, health data has never been so important. The ability to utilize technology and offer remote care are becoming critical to our future. In the continuation of AHIMA International's leadership series we were joined by Dr. Siniša Varga, Member of Croatian Parliament and former Minister of Health who discusses health information and the future in Croatia.

Dr. Varga, what does health information management mean in your region?

Digital record keeping, imaging/storage, telemedicine, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence have had a relatively slow uptake in the health sector when compared to other sectors of society. However, COVID-19 has made decision makers aware of the advantages of digital health information management, and also made health professionals feel the need to change and adapt.

Many doctor-patient interactions and home-to-facility and facility-to-facility travels have now been labelled as redundant and dangerous as they put both patients and health professionals at risk of infection. As a result, healthcare through digital technology to both patients and medical professionals, from wearables to patient data, robots and genomics are being put in the spotlight. Although the reason is primarily as preventive measure, practice has however proven the merit of digital technologies as the robust data being collected is greatly improving the decision making process through health information management.

What are big health focus areas in currently in your region?

The fight against cancer has become a major topic in the region, especially raising efficiency questions due to rising costs. Big data analysis has proven that countries such as Czechia which have concentrated the treatment of cancer patients in high volume specialized centres have better outcomes. Treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obstructive lung disease must be shifted to primary care as is the example in Croatia and Estonia, with specialist support from local hospitals and community nursing. Obesity and bad habits (alcohol, tobacco, drug abuse) are still much higher in the region than in other parts of Europe. National preventive screening programs for breast, cervix and colon cancer do not have a high enough turnout rate for them to be effective. Hospice and and palliative care is not organized at a sufficient and effective level, burdening hospitals and intensive care units with overly expensive end-of-life treatment. These are difficult but necessary reforms that need to be carried out in all countries of central, eastern and southern Europe, but they can be greatly facilitated through emphasis on health information management, while information and communication technologies can be the change management leaver to begin the reform processes.  

From your vantage point, what does the future hold?

Not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic, globally health systems are shifting towards remote care solutions – and they are expected to stay even after the pandemic. The available technologies that have been used during the pandemic have proven to be particularly useful. Remote care has become the new norm and doctors, patients and hospitals see the advantages. The analogy is the “new-normal” of working from home, as commuting to work and renting office space has proven to be redundant, so are unnecessary doctor’s office visits. The use of digital solutions and technologies will by definition be creating robust data, stressing even more the importance of health information management.