View of a Medical team working at the hospital all together
App Modernization

How the pandemic pushed us into a new world of healthcare

Jens Koegler, healthcare industry director, VMware EMEA

In years to come – and perhaps not many – we’ll ask, ‘did the pandemic improve healthcare’? It has undeniably caused a phenomenal amount of stress, pain, upheaval and pressure but in doing so, forced healthcare into a ’new’ world, which some of our customers showcase here.

As a result, what we have seen is the world’s biggest test case for healthcare digitalisation with no area left untouched. Estimates vary but one of the more populist theories was that we saw around five years’ worth of digital advancement in as many weeks at the start of the pandemic as remote became a reality. While it has left a forever-altered global healthcare ecosystem, the size and scale of the changes are so clear because the pandemic was only a symptom of the issues the industry was facing – all of them long before covid.

Clunky, clunky, clunky

Perhaps the most obvious of which is waiting times. According to the National Audit Office the huge backlog for NHS care in England will keep growing for years and could hit anywhere between 7 million and 12 million by early 2025. But waiting lists were already growing prior to COVID-19. In the five years before the pandemic, the waiting list grew from 2.9 million pathways in January 2015 to 4.4 million by December 2019 – an average annual increase of almost 300,000 pathways.

Elsewhere, legacy systems were also brought to the fore as a challenge. Speaking ahead of the pandemic, the former Health Secretary, Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP has said that the NHS is “the world’s most frustrating place to work for its IT”. Its “clunky, clunky, clunky” legacy technology means that outdated IT systems keep data locked in and impede the sharing of information. No surprise we’re now seeing an evolution of NHS Digital and NHSX –  the two bodies responsible for NHS IT strategy and delivery. To get an idea of how quickly the move to adopt technology came, we only need to look at virtual GP appointments. A report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) found that, in May 2019, 0.5% of NHS GP appointments were delivered online. Fast forward to today and recent data from the British Medical Association suggests that figure is around 35%.

Cusp of a great opportunity

These are just the tip of the iceberg. Issues like; security, sharing patient data, the patient experience, budget management and staff welfare all needed addressing but we are on the cusp of a great opportunity to provide healthcare with the reset and rehabilitation it needs for the future, particularly in these areas.

Digital engagement

The consumerisation of technology has changed the playing field for healthcare. Patients are digitally savvy and demand the same convenience, transparency and immediacy of information as experienced in other industries. Evidence tells us that, if healthcare can get this right, then patients will be much more engaged in the process and willing to share data in order to drive a cycle of continuous improvement – more patients, better data, improved care. To realise this, we need to supply the right people with the patient information at the right time in the right place. Clinicians do not have time – nor should they – to be raking over reams of data when they should instead be focusing on patient care. What is required is for healthcare to unite all its patient-facing digital capacity in one uniform strategy so clinicians can make good evidence-based decisions about the kinds of things to do next.

Hospital digitalisation

This is the embodiment of the term ‘marginal gains’. It means introducing digital tools at every stage – from online inquiries to the operating table and beyond – to make minor changes that collectively add up to a major evolution. Driven by a need to segment patients to keep them safe, we’ve seen an introduction of innovations like smart entry systems, dynamic queues and tailored communications but this is just the start of the patient journey and much more can be done. For instance, through digital patient record analysis, software can flag any inconsistencies between a patient’s health and drug prescriptions, alerting health professionals and patients when there is a potential risk of a medication error. From a staff point of view, predictive analysis could help hospitals and clinics estimate future admission rates, which helps these facilities allocate the proper staff to deal with patients. Ideally, digitalisation can contribute to an overall cultural shift from traditional to collaborative care, making shared decision-making the new norm, something covered in this WEF session on how the digital revolution can make healthcare more inclusive.

Accessibility

Healthcare involves people outside of the patient and caregiver employing millions of backend people like those in the warehouse, finance, HR, management and admin. These were the ones who were forced into remote working and who are now empowered by choice. After the initial challenge of networking and connecting these people so they could work from anywhere, healthcare is now faced with a return to work.  According to a PwC US Pulse Survey, 32 percent of healthcare leaders strongly agreed that employee preference was top of mind when developing return-to-office plans. This has other knock-on impacts. The biggest impact customers have shared about the shift to remote work is the ability to recruit nationally, as the increase in remote roles means workers can be hired anywhere. There will be a need for at least 500,000 more Registered Nurses by 2027.

Patient integration

Digitalisation in the health system and wearables, in particular, will offer a way to go beyond the typical metrics by providing detailed medical information. But success will be predicated on trust. Data that frontline healthcare professionals collect, needs to be integrated with the EU Electronic Health Record (EHR) to boost continuity of care based on proactive/empowered health-aware patients/citizens. Strengthening data quality, governance, security and interoperability are key to building trust among end-users, and as such trust in digitalisation of the healthcare sector. EU projects, such as Smart 4Health (S4H) form a good basis for creating value of the digitalisation of the healthcare sector and as such, could empower the co-created European Health Data Space.

Security

The increasing adoption of technology in healthcare means security will be a major theme in the coming years.  We have seen cybercriminals taking advantage of the situation in the adoption of remote working by increasing the volume and sophistication of their attacks while the advent of IoT is only going to increase the attack vector further. Human error should also be factored in – according to IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach Report 2020, the average cost of data breaches from human error stands at $3.33 million. To counteract this, leaders across the industry should invest in regular cyber security training, not only to avoid financial and reputational damage but also to keep sensitive data safe. But good training in only one step, no matter how important.   Training alone will not prevent attackers from finding ways to get into the network. Therefore, the focus needs to be on minimizing the attack surface and speed. Detecting anomalies quickly and reacting to them before an attack turns into less data loss.

Tomorrow came yesterday

There’s no reason for us to not be able to support a hybrid model and certainly no reason for us to go back. In healthcare, tomorrow came yesterday and, by accident, we’ve been presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity.  We can create a world of connected, patient-centric care with improved working conditions for caregivers and better outcomes for patients. A world where staff can safely and securely work from anywhere and hospitals are equipped with the best and most suitable technology available. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. And for the rest of your life.

To learn more about how VMware is approaching the healthcare sector of today and tomorrow, please contact us at vmcare@vmware.com

If you would like to carry on the conversation about the themes in this blog, or anything related to your healthcare transformation, come speak to us at HIMSS in Orlando from March 14 – 18 on booth #2121 and/or book a meeting with us here or in London at DigitalHealth ReWired from March 15-16, where we will be on the Computacenter stand.

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