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Jens Kögler, Healthcare Industry Director EMEA at VMware
In time, we’ll look back on the last 12-18 months as a critically influential and, dare I say it, positive time for healthcare. That’s not to understate the impact on lives and livelihoods globally, but the picture will be much clearer and brighter in the long-term once the dust from the damage has cleared.
That is because the pandemic and the era immediately preceding it has been a catalyst for change as consumers made significant moves towards embracing digital health innovation. While the socio economy is whispering words of optimising in relation to vaccines and removal of restrictions, the health sector can look forward to a new dawn of digital healthcare.
Tipping point for telehealth
The adoption of telehealth, which was already accelerating pre-pandemic, has been exponentially driven by COVID-19. It swept aside several historic barriers to uptake, such as the healthcare professional and patient desire to physically meet medical guidelines that focus on in-person diagnosis and reimbursement models that discourage remote consultation. Indeed, 2020 was a psychological and systemic tipping point for telehealth in the process driving new self-service approaches to medicine and participation-based reimbursement models.
Take the UK; before the virus video appointments made up only 1% of the 340 million annual visits to primary care doctors and nurses in the NHS. Post-virus outbreak, online doctor platform Push Doctor saw a 70% weekly increase in consultations – as the NHS encouraged all of the UK’s 7,000 GP surgeries to reduce face-to-face appointments. That said, there is a mountain of work that remains to be done with the UK also faced with addressing the biggest waiting lists for elective care since records began. We have also seen a strong increase in online services in Germany, especially since proof of sick leave is also allowed via an online doctor.
Addicts of innovation
In our recent ‘digital frontiers’ consumer survey we carried out in Europe, we found 60% of consumers now identify as ‘digitally curious’ or as ‘digital explorers’, meaning countries have a willing and able audience to consume their digital services and experiences. It’s a trend undeniably driven by consumerisation, which has moulded us into addicts of innovation. From the comfort of our own homes, we have recognised the benefit of being able to purchase products and services on-demand without the location, supply and time restrictions of the in-person alternative. This has driven the almost 180-degree turn of patients to embrace digital as a key component of healthcare.
Our survey also found that almost half (44%) of Europeans are now comfortable with – or even excited about – replacing in-person routine consultations with remote or virtual meetings. Of course, this type of technology cannot replace the physical examinations that would be required in a follow-up – if required. A domino-effect style adoption is gradually eroding doubt, fear and scepticism of the role of technology in protecting ourselves, friends and families. Those taking the first steps in accepting technology’s potential to monitor, diagnose and improve their health and wellbeing are helping shift mainstream consumer perceptions.
The root of trust
The expectations we have all developed as digital consumers are now clearly mapping onto how we think about our own healthcare, the services we receive, and how we engage with the NHS or private healthcare providers. We’ve moved way beyond consumers using a quick Google search to ‘diagnose’ symptoms; wearable fitness devices that monitor our vital statistics everyday are now commonplace. And consider the explosion in active users on healthcare apps like Babylon Health or even the government’s track and trace platform – which, according to Statista, had been downloaded nearly 21m times as of December last year. All based on a root of trust in the technology.
Our research found that faith in artificial intelligence (AI) is growing too with 40% of consumers happy to put their trust in a computer that can detect and recognise anomalies, for example cancerous cells, over a human doctor. It also found that many believe robotics are now more reliable – 45% of people are comfortable or excited about a more qualified doctor conducting invasive surgery supported by surgical robots than a less qualified doctor operating in person. The research identified that health data distrust is subsiding with 60% of consumers now comfortable with their doctor having completely accurate data about their daily lives, such as rates of exercise to diet and nutrition, in order to receive better health guidance and counsel.
A holy trinity of change
The big digital switch of 2020 has made consumers feel less wary of technology. From diagnosis to treatment or longer term care, the research is pointing to a future where technology, physicians and patients form a holy trinity on every step of the healthcare journey, particularly in areas that have historically been a challenge to navigate. 58% of consumers are now comfortable or excited about family members with a chronic or long-term illness living further away from a medical facility thanks to sensors and real-time data monitoring predicting when they will need medical assistance. Elsewhere, 46% have faith in technology to significantly lower the risk of invasive surgery within the next five years, while 51% believe it can improve the quality of lives of vulnerable people, such as the elderly or disabled.
The first steps are always the hardest. Now these have been taken and given the pressures on healthcare workers and the systems themselves, we’ll see an even greater digital appetite from more of the population. The opportunity is there for healthcare organisations and governments; now is the time to create, deliver and protect great applications, services and experiences to meet the expectations of consumers and fuel the improvement of their health and wellbeing via pioneering digital services. For more information about how VMware can help support your journey to digital in healthcare, please visit us here