The COVID-19 pandemic has, without question, triggered the worst public health crisis for a generation and created unparalleled disruption for global healthcare communities. As lockdowns came into force and social distancing measures were extended, in just a matter of weeks digital health care solutions were propelled from a bonus option to the only option.
Driven out of necessity, this rapid shift laid bare the vulnerabilities of our healthcare system and highlighted the systemic issues with the adoption of tech across the sector.
During the first three months of the pandemic, there was a clear divide between those practices who had innovated and already implemented digital health care solutions, and those who were now scrambling to try reach their patients virtually during this crisis.
Now, physicians and healthcare systems worldwide have embraced a rapid roll out of digital healthcare solutions that remove the need for face-to-face interactions between patients and their healthcare providers, but still enable treatment to be delivered.
In fact, in the UK, online medical consultations rose from just 2 percent in early March to over 80 percent in April and now nearly 9-in-10 GP prescriptions are issued electronically – a significant boom in comparison to the 20 percent year-on-year growth GPs were experiencing prior to the pandemic.
In short, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred on a momentous change for digital care and by the time the crisis has passed, it has been suggested that healthcare systems will have undergone a decade of change in just a matter of months.
It is no exaggeration to say that digital healthcare has helped clinicians save many lives during this crisis. However, as the pandemic begins to ease, it is vital that the healthcare sector doesn’t revert back to the old way of doing things. Now more than ever, it is crucial we continue to move away from an analogue NHS in the digital age.
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The UK currently has one of the highest patient to doctor ratios in Europe, is expecting a 7,000 GP shortfall by 2023/24 and has already seen waiting times rise by one week, every week as COVID-19 brought routine elective care to a halt. Moreover, figures recently released by the NHS Confederation suggest that the NHS waiting list could reach 10 million by the end of the year, and that’s without taking into account the impact of a potential second wave.
Until now, the healthcare sector has been slow to adopt new technologies. However, as the current crisis has shown, there is vast potential for a digital transformation to complement and enhance the current role of medical practitioners and ensure that patients receive a more proactive program of care.
From triaging patients and diagnosing acute conditions to facilitating video consultations and providing in-depth population health data analysis, the capacity for health-tech solutions to create efficiencies and remove frictions within the current system are substantial.
Adopting a digital first approach to healthcare provision offers an efficient and personalised way to triage patients before they go to emergency departments by enabling healthcare professionals to communicate with individuals remotely and in real time.
Moreover, developed algorithms are well equipped to identify trends and can recommend the best route of care for patients, many of whom could safely look after themselves at home. Therefore, technology to triage can give back valuable consultation time to doctors by directing their patients to the right service, rather than GPs needing to act as a generic gatekeeper for all health services. As a result, we are seeing a complete overhaul in how healthcare is being delivered, with the point of care shifting to the patients.
There have also been other unexpected benefits due to the increased adoption of healthtech on a global scale – in particular, for clinicians. For example, the rise of online image sharing platforms have enabled healthcare practitioners from different localities to work together in multi-disciplinary teams.
As a result, clinicians have been able to pool their expertise on unique and tricky cases, ensuring patients have access to the best care possible.
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the healthcare provisions of even the most advanced nations to their limits, and with tragic consequences. However, the crisis has also brought around a new shift in attitudes when it comes to adapting and evolving archaic health practices.
In the UK, the health tech sector is already a booming market and over the past five years the sector has attracted over $7.7 billion from global venture capital investors. However, despite this making health tech the second biggest sub-set of the national tech sector, practitioners and patients alike have remained hesitant to the adoption of digital healthcare solutions for decades.
Whilst it is tragic that it has taken a pandemic to make us radically revamp the way healthcare is delivered, the current crisis has forced these barriers to be removed, finally making way for a digital transformation.
As we look ahead to a post COVID-19 reality, it is important that we continue to embrace the healthtech boom triggered by the crisis, to ensure that healthcare services are better equipped for the future. If the past four months have shown us anything, it is that the healthcare sector can adapt at pace, and with great success. However, if the UK’s healthcare system is to succeed amid an uncertain future, the importance of pursuing a programme of total triage cannot be overlooked.
Rupert Spiegelberg is the Chief Executive Officer at Doctorlink, the UK’s leading online triage platform, providing 24/7 access to healthcare for 12.5 million NHS patients covering 1,500 GP practices. The platform has also recently been selected by the NHS for a new digital roll out that will see online video consultations and digital triage extended to millions more.