The 2021 digital healthcare summit opened unsurprisingly with a focus on the pandemic and how the digital health and tech community have stepped up to support the global response. Once again, collaboration was a key theme here, with a number of tech, supply and pharma giants highlighting how they have worked together to address the world’s healthcare challenges.
Microsoft shared how they are partnering with Fedex to help with the rollout of vaccines and to address the challenges of cold chain storage and distribution. We also heard how Microsoft are using an AI chat bot to provide advice during the vaccine rollout, and how they plan to respond to the next challenge of preparing for the bow wave of vaccine ‘consumers’.
Abbott also highlighted a partnership with telehealth provider eMed, where they are providing a digital health solution for COVID-19 home testing. This would involve live video guidance to ensure proper sample collection, reliable results and secure data reporting. They said they are expecting 90 million tests at home by the second quarter of 2021.
Another clear message from the summit was how the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital/remote care, helping to improve the democratisation of healthcare. From less than 50 million telehealth visits in 2019 to over 1 billion in the US in 2020, it’s clear that digital health has been in demand to do what it was designed for – treat remotely, diagnose accurately, and share massive amounts of data to improve outcomes.
Even user groups who may have traditionally been slow to adopt, wary, or unable due to lack of access, have started to incorporate digital health into their practices. Some of the providers at the summit claimed that digital health not only offers an alternative to otherwise inaccessible healthcare, but that for many consumers it has become the preferred solution now they’ve seen the benefits.
Despite the uptick in adoption, unfortunately digital health has not been without its challenges. The pandemic has certainly highlighted the weak points in access, infrastructure and, in some cases, the inequality faced due to social demographic, age, or race. Connectivity also remains a problem in some areas, and not just in the wilds of remote rural communities. In urban areas too we’ve seen the stark reality of how many families lack the basic hardware required to educate children from home, let alone manage their health. As the pandemic continues to highlight the benefits of digital health, we can hope that more investment will be put into the infrastructure to support these valuable tools.
Another key theme we see at the summit each year is what we can learn from the data that digital healthcare provides. Pre-registration data was a topic that particularly caught our eye this year. Some speakers highlighted how it could be used to understand who is signing up for vaccination and who is not, providing an insight into behaviours that might benefit from interventions to provide information and allay fears.
For example, Microsoft highlighted how they are working on the pre-registration process and a block scheduling strategy, to help improve the vaccination experience. This could help to avoid long lines and crowded rooms, or patients being sent home if vaccine runs short. It could also help with understanding how to manage the flow of patients, for example around sending reminders for the second dose.
Data could also be used as a tool for reducing the burden on healthcare workers. Through last year and into 2021, we’ve seen healthcare workers become overwhelmed and increases in workforce shortages, with many physicians seeking early retirement after ‘sticking it out’ through the pandemic. There are no simple answers to growing the workforce, so giving patients the right devices and tools, and pointing them to their data, could help empower them to make informed decisions about their own care.
COVID-19 has certainly brought health to the forefront of people’s minds. As a result, there have been reports of a rise in patient adherence, with many people looking to ensure they remain fit and healthy. This is partly owing to the limited in-person access to GPs and hospitals we’ve seen, leading many people to look into tools to self-manage their conditions and taking their existing medication more seriously.
With more people connecting to digital health technologies, be it through connected devices or online consultations, health providers will also have a valuable means to provide information moving forwards, should future emergencies like COVID-19 arise.
Will digital health continue to grow in 2021?
The big question moving into 2021 and beyond is what will stick? When things finally start to return to a new normal, it will be interesting to see whether this systemic shift in adoption has truly accelerated the move toward digital health. If so, we could begin to reap the rewards of reduced cost, better outcomes, better data, and a better understanding of what treatments work and why.