The “digitalization” buzzword can easily be found in the 21st century’s most-frequently-used vocabulary section. Something all businesses aspire to, digitalization can, depending on the specific area, represent a multitude of things, always being an inexhaustible power drive on a journey towards a modernized and efficient business playground.
While privately-owned businesses are well-acquainted with this buzzword by now, the public sector has generally been slower on the digital transformation journey. When it comes to the Serbian public sector, particularly in healthcare, it is some time now since the advantages of going digital were noticed. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the realization that digitalization is not only advantageous but a necessity.
To kick this off, the Serbian government formed a specialized body coordinating the digitalization of the healthcare sector in 2021, which adopted a comprehensive Program for Digitalization of the Healthcare System 2022-2026, together with an action plan on how to tackle the program. The program kicked off by identifying the most vulnerable legal, organizational, and technological obstacles toward digitalization and proceeded with outlining the measures, responsibilities, and expected numbers as the campaign moves forward to 2026.
Analyzing the numbers indicated in the program, it seems that the government wished for this to be an intensive switch to the digital stage. For example, by the end of 2022, 50% of healthcare providers (including private practices) should use e-prescriptions when prescribing medicines, while by the end of 2023 the number should reach 95%. When compared to the 25% measured back in 2021, these numbers might be a bit too bold for the envisaged timeline, especially since those healthcare providers would first need to be provided with adequate technology supporting e-prescriptions, the staff would need to be adequately trained, and the general public educated on how to obtain and make use of e-prescriptions. As the end of 2022 is fast approaching, we will soon be able to assess whether the numbers have indeed risen to expectations.
Another noticeable novelty for the Serbian life sciences discipline is the announcement of a brand-new IT system, set to integrate the public and the private healthcare sector. The project is initiated and led by the Republic Fund for Health Insurance (Fund), which announced the new system should be running beginning of 2023, another bold promise for such a large-scale project. The Fund also announced that it partnered with the Serbian Post Office (SPO) and declared to “use the software potentials of the SPO,” assuring us that the software already exists to a certain degree.
While it may come as a surprise that the SPO is involved in the integration of the public and private healthcare sectors, the appeal of the new system remains tempting, as it should enable healthcare providers to offer higher quality services, having insight into the patient’s entire medical history, from both the public and private sectors. This should imply better control of the medicines supply chain and the ability to predict market vulnerabilities.
However, these changes will need to be accompanied by substantial legislative action. The current legal framework recognizes some level of electronic administration (e.g., potential keeping of electronic medical records), although the framework is not ready to switch to digital as a default, nor to facilitate the interplay between private and public entities. Privacy and cyber security aspects will also play a significant role, as the system will need to balance out who would be able to access patient data and how and if the patient will be able to (dis)allow some or any access to their medical history, especially taking into consideration the sensitivity of health data.
Finally, the partnership between the Fund and the SPO got even more peculiar with talk of another interesting option that may be available soon – the SPO delivering prescription medicines directly to patients’ homes. While this functionality does sound like a step in the right direction at first glance, at this moment it feels far-fetched, especially on the logistics and privacy side of it all.
Looking forward, it remains to be seen whether the current legal and practical prospects of the Serbian healthcare system will facilitate all-out digitalization or if they pose significant difficulties along the way. While digitalization activities are a big bite for Serbia, the eagerness to include the country in the race towards achieving digital competitiveness can only be saluted.
By Goran Radosevic, Partner, and Anja Mihajlovic, Junior Associate, Karanovic & Partners