The Risks and Rewards of Digitising Healthcare

March 02, 2021

Last summer, even as lockdown restrictions were being gradually loosened in the UK, the numbers of new coronavirus infections stayed low. The number of deaths related to COVID, which usually lagged shifts in the infection rate by several weeks, had also dropped. By the middle of June, the number of people dying in hospital was actually lower than a typical summer. 

On the surface, this sounded like good news. Yet submerged beneath these numbers, a new and worrying trend was making its presence known.

People who needed medical care were avoiding hospitals and surgeries — and sometimes dying at home — out of fear of catching COVID.  

Countries throughout the world scrambled to figure out how best to reach people who were too afraid to show up at hospitals and surgeries to ask for help. 

Thankfully, digital technology was there to assist.  

A Slow Trek to Digital

Actually, the healthcare industry has been gradually going digital for several years. But it has lagged behind other industries in this transformation.

Healthcare is an industry beset by regulations, after all, fretful over issues of privacy, and in a constant struggle to find funding. Battling such headwinds, the industry has often settled for the status quo — in this case, antiquated record-keeping systems, along with a host of other cumbersome and inefficient practices.

In the U.S., the Affordable Care Act — popularly known as Obamacare — incentivized providers to finally modernize their Information Technology systems. Physicians and administrators were reluctant to get on board. Within a decade, however, well over 90% of hospitals had complied with the most up-to-date specifications.

In Germany, 2019’s Digital Healthcare Act worked to promote the use of video consultations, digital prescription applications, and a healthcare data network for treatment — just in time for COVID’s arrival. Also in 2019, the UK launched the NHSX — a partnership between the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement — to drive the adoption of digital tech in healthcare.

In other words, before COVID, governments around the globe had already come to recognize both the promise and inevitability of the digital transformation of healthcare. Yet in 2020, the pandemic accelerated this transformation more than ten-fold.  

Socially Distanced Medicine

Early in the pandemic it became clear that the coronavirus was predominantly being transmitted via airborne droplets, usually indoors. Physicians quickly recognized the potential that their waiting rooms could become sources of widespread infection. 

In many places, telephone and video consultations were soon replacing face-to-face doctor’s appointments. Would-be patients quickly adapted to the new reality of the pandemic, relying on NHS 111 online or via telephone to report and identify potential COVID symptoms, and downloading the NHS App to better schedule appointments and manage prescriptions without adding to the burden on badly overworked NHS staff. 

Those healthcare systems which have leaned into the coming wave of digitisation — such as Alberta Health Services, the largest “integrated digitalized healthcare system in Canada,” which went largely digital as far back as 2010 — demonstrated readiness and agility in the face of COVID. Meanwhile those systems which have been more resistant to digital change — such as China’s — have been forced to rapidly adjust their policies to take advantage of tech’s potential assistance. For example, only after the onset of the pandemic did the Chinese government finally began reimbursing online prescriptions and medical consultations.

Some healthcare systems have utilised digital tech to implement remote patient monitoring, such as in Ireland, where patients in isolation due to COVID can have their oxygen levels checked remotely.  

Yet the digitisation of healthcare doesn’t only promise benefits to patients. For governments, the increased access to data provided by digitisation means nimbler responses to healthcare emergencies, such as pandemics, as well as more effective means of sending out targeted messages, such as stay-at-home orders for those who’ve come into contact with someone infected. 

Challenges and Opportunities

Having made this leap to digital during the pandemic, governments throughout the world are likely to continue forging ahead towards more integrated, tech-centered healthcare systems. This doesn’t mean digitisation is without its risks. 

So far there haven’t been any studies showing a decrease in the quality of care resulting from telemedicine, such as telephone and video consultations. At the same time, there haven’t been enough studies to prove that the quality of care is the same as face-to-face appointments, either. 

It’s also possible that further digitisation of healthcare could exacerbate discrepancies in the quality of care seen by those in more vulnerable segments of society. Those living near or below the poverty line are likely to have less access than others to the up-to-date devices and high-speed internet necessary for telemedicine to be effective.

Despite these challenges and others, governments and investors around the globe appear confident that digitisation is the direction healthcare is going. According to this article on CNBC.com, for instance, most tech-related healthcare investments in China before the pandemic were directed at research into treatments. COVID redirected everyone’s attention to digital technologies — a focus that few investors expect to veer off any time soon. 

And there’s a lot of room for further development in the realm of digital healthcare. Just think about all the potential for wearables, such as digital watches and glasses. When connected to a smartphone — which is likewise sharing its data via a healthcare app — these devices could pave the way to a future when preventing disease, instead of curing it, becomes the widespread focus of medical practice.