Unprecedented times

The current global coronavirus crisis (COVID-19),1 has had an extraordinary impact on our daily lives; both on the way we interact with the outside world and with one another.2 The scale and spread of COVID-19 has placed huge demands on healthcare systems and perhaps permanently altered how we approach them. However, it also serves as an opportunity for positive change in the future.2 How is technology paving the way for wholesale changes in the way we treat patients? Or how is it changing the way in which we, as patients, approach healthcare, and what impact could this have in the future? 

Digital health to the rescue

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr Bruce Aylward, from the World Health Organisation (WHO) noted that China’s first step to tackling the outbreak of coronavirus was to move half of all its medical care online.3 While in 2020, this might seem perfectly reasonable, 15 years ago this simply would not have been possible.4 Surgeries would not have had the means to be online, nor would we have well-established telephone lines for health queries. Put simply, the very fact China was able to move half of its medical care online highlights the sheer importance of our technological advances to date and the power of technology as a tool to tackling this pandemic.     

Digital health is not a novel concept. In fact, the recent expansion of these technologies has proven their utility and promised many benefits for patients and the way in which their healthcare is delivered.1 These technology-led solutions include telehealth, big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), predictive algorithms, and electronic health records (EHRs).1 The ultimate goal being optimisation of accessibility, enhancement of patient care and streamlining processes.5 While these technologies are becoming slowly more commonplace, there has remained some reluctance to adopt these new ways of working. Indeed, it appears that across Europe countries differ in both their readiness and ability to adapt to digital health, which would hamper an attempt at cross-border application of telemedicine.6

COVID-19 and a need for change

The outbreak of COVID-19 placed demands on healthcare systems that were previously unheard of. This has highlighted a greater need for solutions to optimise patient healthcare globally, and we don’t have the luxury of time to debate our options. While COVID-19 has been less deadly than initially predicted, it has proven to be certainly more contagious;1 making the need for smart healthcare solutions more crucial than ever.

The global spread of coronavirus has forced healthcare services to adapt and evolve their processes rapidly and innovatively.6 The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, for example, responded by developing a means to digitally automate sicknotes for patients, to avoid the need for face-to-face contact with their healthcare provider.7 Additionally, EMIS Health, a UK-based company which supplies interoperability solutions, provided their video consultation platform for free to healthcare professionals.7 Thus enabling vital patient consultations to be maintained in settings where resources are limited and there is a need for restricted patient contact.7

Big data analytics have also proved critical during this time by allowing disease modelling as a means to guide healthcare policy makers and supplement outbreak response strategies.1 Almost 90,000 cases had been reported just 3 months into 2020; large datasets like these could become invaluable resources for training AI algorithms to support patient screening and diagnosis.1

What’s more, COVID-19 has demanded information sharing on a vast and global level.7 As an outbreak of a virus on a previously unseen scale, healthcare providers are trying to educate themselves and their colleagues in how to most efficiently tackle the spread of the virus.7 Healthcare providers are being actively encouraged to use technology to share information and analyses related to the virus that may inform its management.7 While big data solutions have previously alluded to enhanced data sharing capabilities, COVID-19 has seemingly placed an important spotlight on the need for knowledge sharing within the healthcare community, and may also serve to inform the way we share information in the future. This change has been exemplified by the open publishing of all COVID-related data, raising the question: could this be a driver of collaborative discovery and publication in the future?

Empowering patients

During this time, it is especially important for patients to take an active and empowered approach to their own health and wellbeing. With enforcement of social distancing and self-isolation rules, patients have had to seek their own means of monitoring, tracking and reporting their health concerns and needs. Alongside this, companies were seeking new ways to help, such as the digital health company Babylon, which aims to support patients in the UK through their recently launched care assistant tool.8

Babylon’s care assistant tool allows symptom tracking so that patients are able to make the right decisions around their healthcare needs, monitor any improvement or worsening in their condition and to be referred for hospital care should it be required.8 In this instance, Babylon’s tech-focused solution is supporting patient monitoring where resources are limited, and implementation of remote, digitally-led healthcare. The WHO also responded with the promise of a new open-source app to guide people on COVID-19.9 This app, which was launched in May,10 aims to provide guidance to patients, share local information relevant to people’s location and offer advice on isolation, symptom tracking and provide details of testing sites if required.9

Individuals with existing health conditions that may make them more at risk to COVID-19, are being encouraged to be extra vigilant of their own symptoms, which can be facilitated by using remote disease monitoring and tracking, to better inform any (virtual) consultations with their doctors.11 The European Respiratory Society (ERS) has recommended that patients continue their asthma management as normal, while being careful to limit their interactions with those who are sick and follow the standard guidelines in place.12 Pilot studies performed in the US have shown promise in implementing digital solutions that are able to support these measures, offering a way for patients to track their medication use, and keep a record of symptoms and potential disease exacerbations.13

Driving rapid digital solutions uptake

Where stringent regulatory policies may have previously slowed the widespread uptake of certain digital solutions, COVID-19 has served to force rapid, widespread global change out of necessity.2 For example, the EU pushed forward plans to explore and liberalise industrial data to analyse the coronavirus spread, creating the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) app; aimed to interrupt new chains of COVID-19 transmission.14 Thus, a new precedent was set for rapid augmentation of existing regulation to provide real-time support in a time of public need. Despite this, it is still essential to approach expedited regulation with caution; rapidly implemented solutions have been met with concerns about patient privacy.15

Elsewhere, the UK loosened their data privacy restrictions, acknowledging that organisations might fall short of their standard practices and will not be penalised as long as the principles of the law are applied.16 Following this, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) produced a series of questions guiding those creating new technologies to ensure that privacy implications are being properly considered for those using the technology.16

A new template for healthcare

While terrorist attacks changed the way we travel and use security, and the financial crash reminded us that we are still vulnerable to economic hardships, COVID-19 has reminded us that just like the great flu pandemic of 1918, viruses remain an important health concern that need to be addressed.2 As we continue to make progress with how technology can help us tackle COVID-19, there is no doubt that we will set a new standard for the way we tackle outbreaks in the future.

Perhaps the adoption of digital health technologies will become more commonplace, not just in times of global crisis.2 Where healthcare practices may have once been reluctant to adopt telephone or video consultations, perhaps this will become more routine.17 Issues of patient accessibility and the inability to travel to medical consultations etc., are not new problems, nor are they going away. Perhaps widespread digital uptake, as forced by these uncertain times, may prove to be empowering for healthcare for a long time to come.17 Likewise, is there an opportunity for us to learn how patient care can be truly optimised in the future, even when we are able to interact with one another again? Could coronavirus be the catalyst to widespread digital uptake for healthcare?

Discover more about digital health in our articles on big data here and wearable tech here. Sign up for our monthly updates too, here.