The Slovenia Times

Driving innovation: Slovenia's path to leadership in patient and data-driven healthcare

Eva McLellan, director general of Roche Slovenia, board member of AmCham and BILDAI, Photo: Roche

Slovenia has a unique opportunity to capitalise on the role of AI and digitalization in healthcare and become a leader in data-driven healthcare, Eva McLellan, director general of Roche Slovenia, writes in an opinion piece for the Slovenia Times. In a bid to realise that goal Roche has taken an initiative to establish the Bled Institute for Leadership in Digital Transformation and AI (BILDAI) with the IEDC Bled School of Management. McLellan also sits on the board of AmCham and BILDAI.

Healthcare is on the cusp of a breakthrough, and Slovenia can lead the way. A revolution is taking place in how we will diagnose and treat patients in the future, driven by artificial intelligence and big data. Having worked for more than twenty years in biotechnology, I can attest that the innovations we are now seeing represent a truly generational change.

Slovenia is set to play an important part in shaping this exciting future. We have the skills, healthcare professionals, and the aptitude to be leaders here. But first we must overcome the fear of change. We need to open our minds and embrace digital transformation. We need to be bold and come together with a shared vision and ambition.

There's some urgency in this too. While the benefits of a data-driven and AI-enabled health system are obviously good news for patients, there's a pressing economic and structural need too. Healthcare is facing a global funding crisis. The rising cost of healthcare and supporting the needs of ageing populations are putting healthcare systems under enormous pressure. This is certainly the case here in Slovenia.

Poor health also has a huge impact on society and our economy. Absenteeism due to unmet medical needs is not only a loss of productivity but also of talents, knowledge, and wellbeing. Slovenia lost more than 15 million working days of employees due to all sick leave in 2023, that is 4.6% more than in pre-Covid times*.

In the simplest terms, this is about our health and wealth, investing in health and keeping people productive. That is innovating medicines that have clinical benefits keeping people out of the hospital. This can reduce the amount of care burden, the amount of absenteeism and can preserve the working population which has a direct impact on GDP.

Historically, Slovenia has been a leader in primary care. In the 1980s and 1990s, our country was recognized for its robust and well-organized primary healthcare system, which ensured high accessibility and equity in healthcare delivery.

Slovenia can be at the forefront of innovation, to implement solutions and drive the change we need.

Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in primary care all in one place is something most countries are trying to establish, more than fifty years after we first did this in Slovenia. We can now go further and be one step ahead again, as leaders in data-driven healthcare and technology. This would enable healthcare providers and patients to make more informed decisions, leading to better outcomes with the same or fewer resources.

At the end of 2022, the government presented an excellent e-health strategy, aiming to make Slovenia one of the most efficient and sustainable digital health systems in the EU by 2027. It's a bold ambition and one that I fully endorse.

However, this strategy has yet to be fully realized, primarily due to challenges such as lack of knowledge, time, and communication. Despite available solutions in digital healthcare that offer significant value in prevention, early detection, disease management, and therapy, implementation lags.

It is crucial for Slovenia to capitalize on this moment of opportunity by strengthening its technological and basic infrastructure, implementing targeted regulatory and legal measures, and reforming labour legislation to retain and attract biotechnology and data science talent. Achieving this success will require private-public partnerships and cross-sectorial and cross-ministerial collaboration, as well as a long-term commitment to these goals.

Where to start? A modern, networked data infrastructure in healthcare is key. Additionally, a harmonized and flexible regulatory framework must be adopted. Implementation often fails due to the "evidence paradox" - no evidence means no risk-taking, but without taking risks, no evidence can be generated.

The changes in the health system are going to happen. Organized or spontaneous. We should not try to control the flow but be the leaders. At the same time, we must follow the example of other countries and increase health spending to keep up the level provided to citizens today. To do that, society must agree that investment in health improves not only outcomes for individuals, but also drives national economic growth and delivers benefits to society as a whole.

Cooperation across all sectors - government, experts, patients, and industry - is essential to change this. This is something I have longed championed and at Roche, we place a huge amount of value on collaboration. We know that all stakeholders have vital insights to share and learn from. As we move forward together, we will create the changes we all want to see.

This is why we have taken the initiative to establish the Bled Institute for Leadership in Digital Transformation and AI (BILDAI) with the IEDC Bled School of Management. Our aim is to make BILDAI Slovenia's premier institute for driving innovation in AI and data, and create a collaborative nexus for critical players - government entities, businesses, academia, and experts in the field. We will exchange insights and advance leadership excellence and innovation in the digital and AI fields within Slovenia, throughout the EU and on a global scale.

The BILDAI's core mission is to develop a strong data and digital ecosystem, and leaders who are not only equipped to navigate but also to shape the new era.

This initiative exemplifies how cross-sector partnerships can build the expertise needed to modernize healthcare systems effectively. Healthcare excellence must reach far beyond the clinical results we have traditionally focused on. As we move forward, it will increasingly encompass efficiency of delivery, effective use of resources, and broader expectations from patients and providers alike. Our job is to use digital technology to move our systems into the next era of healthcare delivery and that starts with making sure our leaders have the skills to do this.

A blueprint for the future - Turning the Slovenian data-driven healthcare system into a center of excellence and lighthouse for Europe.

Slovenia's strong foundation in healthcare, innovation and talent means we are uniquely positioned to lead in data-driven healthcare. But this requires us to focus on investing our energy, resources, and expertise to make the progress needed by 2027 and make us one of the most efficient and sustainable digital health systems in Europe.

I know from experience that every decade or two there comes a watershed moment. And when capitalized appropriately, can give you not only a huge advantage but can also provide impact and value to society. The role of AI and digitalization in healthcare is that watershed moment.

If we focus on this golden window of opportunity and step forward together, in three years we can meet in Bled and eat our famous cream cake and say, it may not have been easy, but it was worth it.

*ZZZS report for 2023, page 64.


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