The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a profound digital transformation across society. In the healthcare sector, we are living in a transformational moment. The pandemic has rapidly accelerated the adoption of digital technologies across international healthcare structures, as digital tools such as telemedicine, mobile applications, video consultations, video examinations, remote monitoring and wearables have become the new norm.
During Covid-19, video conferencing software has become as important as e-mail, with Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Hopin all used by millions of workers daily. Before the pandemic, however, video was not as widely used, and this was especially true in the healthcare industry.
Prior to Covid-19, telemedicine, remote monitoring, video consultations and video examinations made up a tiny proportion of GP consultations. Today, they are used frequently, as patients are advised to stay at home in the interests of their safety. Wearable tech and mobile applications have similarly been pushed into the limelight, as governments have adopted mobile applications to track and trace to combat infection levels.
Indeed, we have seen more change in healthcare in the last ten months compared to the last ten years. According to NHS Digital, for example, online GP appointments in the UK grew from 0.6 percent in 2019 to around 90 percent at the height of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020.
Historically, healthcare practitioners have been reticent to embrace digital health tools due to concerns about technology disturbing the delicate balance of the patient-clinician relationship. In addition, privacy, technical failures and a lack of education are all barriers to the adoption of digital healthcare technologies among GPs.
The pandemic, however, has sprung the healthcare industry into action and has removed much of the longstanding reticence in the adoption of digital health technologies, galvanizing clinicians to reap the benefits of digital tools amid rising Covid-19 infection rates.
Improving patient care with digital tools
Digital technology can have a transformative impact in the healthcare sector, improving the standards of patient care.
The benefits of digital healthcare technology are highlighted in our Digital Healthcare Report entitled “Covid-19: Ensuring a quality patient experience with the rise of digitization in a healthcare setting,” which surveyed over 3,000 patients and over 300 GPs during Covid-19 across the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.
More than half (51 percent) of UK patients reported that using digital tools led to quicker access to their GP than normal. In the case of GPs, digital tools allowed practitioners to prescribe treatment more easily, with 35 percent of UK GPs finding it easier to prescribe treatment to patients using mobile applications.
Barriers to overcome: Harnessing digital tool benefits in healthcare
While there has been substantial change since Covid-19, there remain a number of barriers to overcome when harnessing the benefits of digital tools as part of everyday healthcare practices. Even prior to the pandemic these barriers were present but not as well-known, due to the differences in the patient care environment.
One of the key barriers is around patient perceptions of how digital tools are used. Although there has been an increase in usage of digital tools during the coronavirus pandemic by patients, our data shows that there is still an overwhelming preference for in-person consultations in the future.
The reason behind this could be a lack of awareness and experience around using digital tools, and concerns surrounding privacy. Indeed, within our report, privacy concerns, especially associated with monitoring, have prompted patient hesitancy and represent a significant barrier to the adoption of digital healthcare solutions in the future.
It’s essential that all stakeholders in the industry work together to overcome these concerns, to enable patients to experience the benefits of digital tools as part of their care. To address patient fears around privacy, healthcare technology providers need to de-risk the development of digital technology. Companies must be aware of data collection regulations, such as GDPR, to mitigate the potential for data breaches. During the Covid-19 pandemic, governments relaxed the rules around data sharing and it is critical that organizations safeguard patient data to prevent the next big data breach in the interests of their safety and security.
Meanwhile, they must ensure they are aligned and compliant with regulation. Most notably, the European Medical Device Regulation (MDR), which ensures high standards of quality and compliance for medical devices produced in or supplied to Europe. Technology vendors and pharmaceutical companies must therefore be aware of regulatory frameworks before developing digital health technologies, to ensure they are fully compliant and permitted under new and existing laws.
Another prohibitor in patient access to digital tools is the way in which GP workflow integration is set up. For GPs to play their part in promoting patient adoption of digital technology, they need to ensure that they have future-proofed their workflows. Digital transformation needs to be integrated and accessible for clinicians to avoid losing time with patients There is still much work to be done in improving standards of patient care with digital tools. Indeed, our research shows that over half of UK GPs report technical issues when using telemedicine, video consultations, video examinations, remote monitoring, and applications. Government investment in the right infrastructure, such as 5G and fiber optics, is essential in being able to provide the basics prior to future advancements in digital healthcare tools.
Taking a blended approach
To reduce the strain on healthcare services in the context of a global pandemic, and to provide access to care for patients that is both safe and convenient, emphasis should be placed on creating a blended approach to improving healthcare.
In a remote world, there is just not enough capacity to satisfy the demand. There is a requirement to go beyond telehealth and this first generation of digital healthcare tools, calling for other, more advanced forms of digital health to be created and adopted in the future.
Indeed, as we enter a post-Covid-19 world, it is essential that we improve the patient and clinician relationship by removing the frictions that exist across digital health tools, while applying strict and medically compliant engineering standards.
The world’s experience of Covid-19 has shown that technology is here to stay in healthcare. Moving forward, we need to create technologies that focus on the whole patient. These technologies need to be easy to use by practitioners and help to provide new levels of information, comfort and control for patients that help them live healthier and happier lives.
Stefan Scheepers, Business Director of Digital Health, Mobiquity