Covid-19 presents pivotal time for digitisation of healthcare

Published on the 26/03/2020 | Written by Heather Wright

Digitisation of healthcare

It doesn’t have to be ground breaking to be life-saving…

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a pivotal time for the digitisation of the healthcare sector, putting a rush on initiatives previously stymied by funding regimes which often don’t recognise the value of innovative tech solutions.

Sharon Hakkennes, Gartner senior director analyst in healthcare, says funding restrictions have been an inherent barrier to the use of digital tech.

“When we operate in health systems that rely on activity-based or volume-based funding it is very hard for services to be reimbursed for some of these more innovative approaches and models of care,” Hakkennes says.

“It’s a chance to look to digital technology to really be innovative.”

But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it ‘some good positive moves towards recognising the value of virtual care and funding it from our government’.

Both the Australian and New Zealand governments have served up additional funding for telehealth in the face of the pandemic. New Zealand’s funding included $20 million to support the scaling up of the capacity for GP and community health providers to use technology to conduct consultations online, while in Australia AU$100 million is going towards an increased telehealth response, enabling medical, nursing and mental health staff to deliver services over the phone or via videoconferencing.

Hakkennes says one of the earliest and greatest impacts seen is the use of technology to scale delivery and to provide service delivery as close to a patient’s home as possible. Telehealth consultations and virtual care are kicking in as health providers work to keep patients away from hospitals – and the anyone infected away from the wider population.

“The opportunities we are seeing are as simple as video consultations rather than patients going to their local GP, to more complex uses of digital technology such as chatbots that have AI so that a person is able to enter their system and go through series of questions to determine if they are at risk or not.”

Crucially, those apps, such as UK virtual doctor company Babylon Health’s Covid digital care assistant, also provide instructions on the next steps patients need to take to help triage the flow of patients to prevent hospitals being inundated.

Babylon, whose GP at Hand phone app has been piloted in the NHS, modified its platform to create a new Covid-19 service. The service has been extended to provide a chat-based service and can also monitor a person over time.

“They can report if they are worsening over time and escalate care,” Hakkennes says.

Triage apps and platforms have flooded the market in recent weeks. From Google sister company Verily’s beta Covid screening site, to – launched by Aaron Patzer (founder of financial management tool Mint) and his healthcare company,  Vital – and the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-checker chatbot offering, which uses Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot service.

The offerings hold the potential to prevent a mass influx of patients to hospital.

Effective triaging of patients holds the potential to prevent a mass influx of patients to hospitals.

“We need to take the learnings from places such as Italy – where one of the challenges was that their health system became inundated – and provide the avenues and opportunities for people to access the right care at the right time, in the right place.”

While much of the app development and triage platform work is taking place internationally Hakkennes says there are positive moves in both New Zealand and Australia when it comes to scaling virtual capabilities, with a ‘significant’ surge in the use of tech to virtualise consultations. But there’s a need to take it further, particularly in terms of remotely monitoring less critical Covid-19 patients at home, she says.

“There is a lot of potential for that care to be provided, with using pulse oximeters or temperature monitoring sensors continuously updating hospitals so they can keep a close eye on remote patients.”

And it’s not a case of building from scratch, with Hakkennes noting that many health services already have remote monitoring services for specific care areas, such as patients with diabetes, chronic lung disease or heart failure, and a number of mature platforms already in market.

“In those health organisations with remote monitoring services it’s a matter of scaling for those capabilities.

“Everyone is working hard together to fast track some deployments.”

Hakkennes says one of the key issues thrown up in the last couple of weeks across Australia and New Zealand has been the need for a better way of ensuring citizens are receiving clear messages.

“Certainly, in Australia we have had challenges with getting things right. There are opportunities with apps such as virtual health assistants like the Babylon app, to enable the population to have a tool that is at hand and ready to direct them to the right care.”

“That’s a really important step here as we are still working on the upwards slope of this curve that we need to make sure that patients who need hospital care can access that care and patients who don’t need immediate hospital care are implementing the right protections and getting the right treatment but not inundating higher level care than they need to be.”

Hakkennes says the pandemic will have a long-term impact on healthcare.

“We are going to be modifying the way we care. There is a real opportunity here to consider long term changes in our models of care and how we deliver that care, and really focus on using digital technologies to enable a better experience for patients, better outcomes, more efficient delivery of care and a good clinician experience as well.

“We can use this opportunity to embed some core technologies – like telehealth and virtual care technologies ­– into the way we work – and also look to some of the many innovations coming out to understand how they can help us be agile as health systems change. It’s a chance to look to digital technology to really be innovative and help us with new ways of working.”

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