The Dawn of Digital Healthcare in COVID-19
Ever heard of “Necessity is the mother of invention”? Well, it certainly holds true when, looking back at the past few months, along with the disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic created in countries and industries globally, it also ushered in a golden period for the growth of digital health, worldwide.
Just as some viruses change their genetic codes with their life cycles, the global healthcare industry has also rapidly evolved, both in pace and scale, to keep up with the changes in patients’ lifestyles due to the pandemic. It accelerated the adoption of virtual health by both providers and patients, to reduce the stress on overburdened healthcare systems while providing services to a large patient population.
Let’s Explore some of the ways in which healthcare has embraced technology to provide digital health services to patients.
1. Tele-medicine Platforms
With shelter at home orders and lockdowns in place for many countries globally, health care centers revolved mainly around COVID-19, leaving patients of chronic diseases like diabetes, renal disease, cardiac ailments, in the lurch, without much access to physician consultations in outpatient departments. Many were reluctant to enter hospitals for routine appointments or necessary checkups due to the potential risk of infection.
While telemedicine has been present globally for the last decade, it was not an option that was taken by most. However, the pandemic pushed it into the limelight, making remote, safe consultations an everyday practice. While there are many platforms that offer teleconsultation platforms for physicians in private practice, private hospitals like the Apollo Chain, created its own portal to facilitate telehealth services. These included smart phone apps that help with practice management, appointment bookings, e- prescriptions and digital storage of patient reports (Electronic Health Records). It also provided a platform for mental health services, targeting holistic patient well-being.
In the UAE, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) aims to utilize and propagate telemedicine, with the “ Doctor for Every Citizen” initiative, which offers clinical care to all residents, with consultations via apps, calls, and video calls from certified doctors. The last few months have also witnessed global administrative support for tele-medicine, through effective legislation. In the United States,The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act and the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security) expanded access to telehealth services during the pandemic; while, in India the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently released the Telemedicine Practice Guidelines and kick-started the use of the e-sanjeevani portal, which demonstrates the evolution in mindset in public healthcare to readily embrace telemedicine as a viable alternative to traditional consultations.
2 Mobile/Digital Health
Leveraging the convenience and omnipresence of smart phones, M-Health (Mobile Help) was brought to the forefront with self-triaging mobile apps like the UK’s COVID-19 symptom tracker, and the “Trace Together” application in Singapore which ,through GPS locating services also helped with contact tracing, indicating hot spots for infection. The Trace Together application has evolved into a Bluetooth enabled token pocket device, which is going to be distributed to all residents of Singapore, in order to increase the coverage to include those without smart phone access like the elderly and children. It may lead to more effective contact tracing.
3. Remote Patient Monitoring
The market for remote patient monitoring is predicted to value over US$ 3.1 billion by the end of 2027 and record at a CAGR of over 12% during the forecast period of 2020 – 2027. Patients are more agreeable to remote monitoring through point of care devices like ambulatory heart rate monitors, digital stethoscopes or pulse oximeters, linked with phone applications that transmit real time data to physicians and improves compliance. It allows patients to actively monitor their health, without exposing themselves to risk of infection while visiting physicians at healthcare centers, while reducing the burden on healthcare providers.
The pandemic has also made many people acutely aware of their vulnerability when faced with the risk of infection. It has made them take ownership of their health, taking strides to improve their health and immunity. This has resulted in a rise of wearable devices like smart bands, smart watches and smart rings which track heart rates, oxygen saturation, activity, diet and sleep cycles, to monitor holistic health.
5. Self-Service Kiosks
These kiosks helped to reduce human contact or touch points at reception areas or waiting rooms while patients register, scanning and checking documents. Tablets can be kept at patient bedside for easy communication with support staff. They have reduced paperwork and streamlined processes while improving patient satisfaction. However, there is a fine line, that should also be kept in mind; a fully automated system may feel impersonal, when patients are looking for empathetic human contact and communication, in stressful times.
6. Chat Bots
These include interactive AI powered tools that help with patient engagement and communication and also provides a no contact method of screening patient symptoms. Chat bots are provided on health care organizations’ websites and applications, as well as the hospital information software. Companies like Orbita have developed conversational virtual health assistants, through smart devices that provide virtual bed side assistance and education to patients.
Many of the patients who were affected by COVID-19, required intensive care support during their road to recovery. Critical care treatments evolved to adopt E- ICUs, in order to broaden the scope and reach of expert intensive care treatment to a larger population. E- ICU technology enables a specialist to monitor a patient under 24 hour electronic intensive care surveillance. It gives a constant flow of information regarding patient vitals like pulse rate, temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate along with a connected monitor, ventilator and audio visual technology that sounds alarms, for emergency interventions . With this an intensivist in a city monitor a patient in a remote location, breaking the boundaries for accessibility to expert care. The leading companies developing the tracking and monitoring technology are General Electric, Siemens and Philips .
As patients, providers and administrations experience the positive impact of the digital health revolution during the pandemic, it is now hard to imagine healthcare without technology as a core component, going forward. There are however, two sides to every coin. While it is incredibly tempting to jump headfirst into digital healthcare, there are precautions with cyber security, legalities, policies and protection of patient data that should be ensured before implementation, without which a virtual Pandora’s box of detrimental effects may occur.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a call from the future, a sharp reminder for global administrations to pay attention to gaps in healthcare delivery. It serves as a driving force that catapults the industry into a technologically advanced age, aiming to achieve the trinity of clinician engagement, lowered cost of delivery and patient satisfaction.
For the Sci-Fi enthusiasts among us, the exciting innovations in healthcare are reminiscent of the future depicted in the Star Trek movies, bringing that “final frontier” a little bit closer!
- AuCreative. “Remote Patient Monitoring Market Introduction:” FutureWiseResearch.com: Market Research Reports and Industry Analysis from Top Publisher in UK, USA, 2020, www.futurewiseresearch.com/healthcare-market-research/Remote-Patient-Monitoring/105.