Has COVID-19 shifted the dial on digital healthcare?

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Health and care organisations have historically lagged behind those in other industries in making the most of digital technologies and data solutions. Yet the rapid onset and escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially forced organisations to embrace these tools to quickly adapt to new ways of working and delivering their services.

This overhaul of industry norms has led to a number of key questions: how widespread has this adoption been? Which tools and technologies have been implemented, and how have these solutions affected staff productivity and service delivery? What will ‘stick’ after the pandemic ends and we return to some semblance of pre-COVID normality?

Our new report, Embracing digital: is COVID-19 the lasting catalyst for change?, delves into these questions and more. The bulk of this paper centres on a multi-country survey by YouGov of over 2,200 people working in health and human services (HHS). The survey was conducted in September of last year, approximately 6 months after many countries had implemented lockdown measures and other restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the pandemic. We also carried out expert interviews to flesh out additional insights.

The rise of digital health technologies

Unsurprisingly, we found that nearly two-thirds of survey respondents reported an increase in the use of digital and data solutions since the onset of the pandemic. Use of phone and video consultations was most common, with phone consultations offered by 81% of respondents (compared to 39% pre-pandemic) and video consultations offered by 71% of organisations (compared to 22% pre-pandemic). While less widespread, the use of AI-powered diagnostic tools also more than doubled among our sample (38% compared to 18% pre-COVID).

Encouragingly, our survey suggests that adoption of data solutions and digital technologies has led to a number of positive effects. 63% of respondents agreed that the use of these tools has improved staff productivity since the onset of the pandemic. A similar number reported that the use of these solutions has been effective in improving access to care when and where people need it; and 62% cited an improvement in the quality of care experience for citizens.

Short-term solution or long-term shift?

With coronavirus vaccines being rolled out across the globe, many organisations are beginning to plan for post-pandemic operations. So the question remains: was the use of many of these digital solutions a temporary measure, or will we see lasting, transformative change?

The picture is mixed among our respondents, with almost half agreeing that the introduction of data solutions and digital technologies was a temporary measure to help their organisation get through the pandemic period. Yet a third neither agreed nor disagreed, highlighting a number of uncertainties in the industry over future strategies.

Continued use, broader adoption, and sustainability of these tools will depend on a number of factors. While emergency funding and temporary reimbursement fuelled an uptake in digital/remote delivery of care, permanent changes to incentives and reimbursement will be necessary to sustain these services. Similarly, hastily developed and implemented tools may need updating to comply with standard privacy and data regulations, which may have been relaxed during the pandemic.

Additionally, once the acute need for these solutions ebbs, health and care providers may be hesitant to continue using clunky tools that lack interoperability and contribute to additional administrative burden. This highlights the need for organisations to invest in coordinated strategies and infrastructures across these solutions, as well as ensuring that all tools are user-friendly. People’s preferences may also play a role, with many now becoming accustomed to tech-enabled services that offer speed and convenience.

Maintaining momentum

We are at a unique crossroads with the opportunity to use the traction gained for these solutions to drive further improvements in care delivery and outcomes for citizens across the globe. To achieve this, all stakeholders – payers, regulators, vendors, and providers – must each do their part to ensure that we move forward and do not lose momentum.

The report, ‘Embracing digital: is COVID-19 the lasting catalyst for change?’ was led by the Institute of Global Health Innovation and commissioned by our partners, EY. Download the report here.

Didi Thompson is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Global Health Innovation

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