Digitalizing Healthcare: The Rise of Virtual Care

04/21/2021

Gaining access to medical professionals has become increasingly difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual healthcare, facilitated by digital technologies, includes a range of services that can help alleviate overstretched healthcare systems, minimize the spread of infection, and foster patient-clinician relationships. Moreover, collaborative technology platforms extend the utility of digitalization to help strengthen communication between all healthcare professionals and management teams. Although COVID-19 has necessitated the quick adoption of digital technologies, can digitalization continue to yield improvements to efficiency, care quality and cost reductions as we transition out of a global pandemic?

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Digitalizing healthcare: The rise of virtual care
The digitalization of healthcare has been evolving for many years – from telemedicine and remote patient engagement to new digital approaches for diagnostics and information exchange. On the rise before the pandemic, the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 vastly accelerated the widespread adoption of virtual healthcare. With face-to-face contact between patients and healthcare providers (HCPs) strictly limited, telemedicine started to come into its own.

What is virtual healthcare?
Like the technologies themselves, the term virtual healthcare – or digital health – is continually evolving to encompass new approaches and digital developments. While there are no officially agreed definitions, the terms virtual-, tele-, digital- and e-healthcare all tend to have a wide scope that includes technologies for remote patient communication, education, diagnosis and monitoring. In addition, digital technologies and software for HCP-to-HCP information exchange and administrative/operational functions are also included under this umbrella. The terms telemedicine and remote healthcare often refer only to the remote medical consultation and treatment of patients.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global digital health market is expected to witness a 37.1% spike in growth in 2021 1. With continued integration of digital communications and medical services, this market growth is forecast to continue and reach 508.8 billion USD (equivalent to approximately 420 billion EUR) by the year 2027 1.

Why go virtual?
The widespread adoption of virtual healthcare has the ability to transform the industry. With remote patient visits, HCPs hope to vastly increase patients’ access to care while simultaneously decreasing the overall cost of healthcare provision. But it is not just patient experience that is affected, digital technologies impact the entirety of healthcare provision and all those who work in the sector, including HCP managers, procurement teams and operations colleagues. For example, virtual methods for HCP-to-HCP communication and digital platforms for performing administrative tasks such as updating patient records and providing patients with the ability to book appointments all help to drive down the cost of modern healthcare and boost patient satisfaction.

While the benefits of virtual healthcare are neither surprising or new, it is the unique circumstances of the pandemic crisis that have resulted in its rapid and widespread implementation. With more patients unable or unwilling to visit their primary care physicians, and a need for social distancing requirements and strict infection prevention protocols, hospitals and healthcare centers have relied more heavily on virtual healthcare approaches and technologies, confirming their vital role in modern healthcare.

“It's incredible. [COVID-19] has done what we couldn't do until now… The risk–benefit ratio for virtual health care has massively shifted and all the red tape has suddenly been cut.” Said Trisha Greenhalgh, co-director of the Interdisciplinary Research in Health Sciences Unit at Oxford University (Oxford, UK) when speaking to The Lancet in early 2020 2. Professor Jörg Debatin, head of the Health Innovation Hub (hih) in Germany (a think-tank established by the Ministry of Health (Bundesministerium für Gesundheit, BMG)) echoed this in HealthcareITNews in March 2020, “We see growing interest. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only a few hundred doctors were interested in telemedicine solutions for teleconsultations. In the last few days, the number has increased to several thousands,” says Debatin.

Connecting with patients

Remote healthcare visits
The ability of HCPs to communicate with patients in a digital manner is not itself ground breaking. The technologies for live video calling, audio and instant messaging are not dissimilar from those we use in our everyday lives. However, a shift in mindset, as well as decisions by healthcare managers to push these services, has opened patients’ eyes to the benefits and possibilities that remote healthcare offers. The inherent cost-savings and increases in efficiency then also benefit HCPs.

Mobile videoconferencing software and apps support faster, easier and more-frequent communication between patients and their own doctors and clinical teams – eliminating the need to travel and visit a healthcare practice or hospital. In addition, there are also now a large number of services, mostly through mobile telemedicine apps, that can put people in touch with relevant, licensed healthcare professionals. With many of these services available 24/7 and offering very short wait times (sometimes as little as 15 minutes), this option can be incredibly appealing for patients.

Of course, there is still pushback on this method of patient engagement for some portions of the population who would prefer talking to a healthcare professional face-to-face. Also, not all types of consultations can be conducted remotely and there are many occasions when a physical meeting between clinician and patient is necessary. Internet access and connectivity issues, as well as an individual’s knowledge, experience or skillset, can also effect a patient’s willingness to partake in telemedicine.

Education and information
As remote HCP-patient engagement increases, there is an even greater need to ensure patients feel informed and up-to-date. Digital communication, including websites and mobile apps educate and inform in a more passive and therefore cost-efficient manner. One such example is the Digital Education Solution from Olympus and Inhealthcare, developed for patients awaiting endoscopy procedures. This digital solution aims to increase NHS diagnostic capacity in the UK, where data shows that UK endoscopic activity fell by 95 per cent during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis 3. With personalized patient support and educational materials in a digital format, the hope is that this digital service can help improve health outcomes, reduce missed appointments and ease the strain on overstretched hospitals.

By digitizing the patient journey from referral to post-procedure patient feedback, admin and patient contact time is reduced while the patient still feels informed and educated about their procedure.

Monitoring and diagnosis
Connected-health devices and remote patient monitoring (RPM) technologies enable HCPs to monitor patients without having to come into contact with them. This is an important consideration in terms of infection prevention but also is very important in terms of patient experience. Monitoring patients (often with chronic conditions) can be incredibly time intensive – both for the patient and HCPs – and so the opportunity to automatically report on a patient’s health as they go about their day-to-day lives is hugely beneficial to both parties.

Connected-healthcare devices range from wearable heart monitors to Bluetooth-enabled scales. They can provide health measures of patients and help facilitate healthcare decisions from afar. RPM in chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, helps physicians to diagnose and adjust treatment plans, often avoiding unnecessary contact with healthcare professionals, circumventing more difficult procedures and improving patient outcomes with earlier, more accurate diagnoses.

RPM allows patients to take more control of their health and reduces footfall to healthcare facilities, allowing resources to be focused where they are needed most. Adopting an RPM system to complement care often helps to improve user satisfaction and can have potential benefits on outcome. However, it must be said that it doesn’t necessarily reduce demand on the healthcare system as clinician time, data analysis and diagnoses are still big factors.

Going beyond patient engagement

HCP-to-HCP: simplifying collaboration
In addition to digital patient communication and monitoring solutions, the need for digitalization in all aspects of healthcare operations grows in line with the desire to boost efficiency and refocus resource and budget.

It is often the case that clinicians need to communicate with colleagues or other staff members. This could include multi-disciplinary treatment planning consultations and collaboration between different departments. A digital solution helps to reduce an individual clinician’s time spent travelling, reduce wait times by cutting down on the logistical challenges of numerous people meeting face-to-face, and streamline resources and expenditure. The need for collaboration is even greater in the Operating Rooms, where the right expertise needs to be available at the required time.

Medical virtual presence software for remote collaboration, such as MedPresence from Olympus, allows HCPs to assemble teams of experts, including virtual colleagues. This collaborative approach encourages peer-to-peer consultancy and increases clinical efficiency to help improve patient outcomes. Participants interact and communicate naturally, as if they were in the room together, and rather than this being just a teleconferencing system, video, audio and relevant contextual imagery and information are combined to support well-informed decision-making. Due to the sensitive nature of healthcare information and data protection considerations, this end-to-end secure system ensures GDPR compliance for patient privacy. There is also an additional benefit to medical education with the ability to involve medical students (at a point where they previously may not have been in attendance) and to train, educate and thus improve procedural techniques.

Admin and operations
The digitalization of administrative and operational tasks in all businesses – including healthcare – is fundamental to ensure efficiency.

In healthcare, the data generated across all patients is colossal and the task of storing, organizing and linking patient records in formats that are understandable and simple for colleagues throughout the system to access is critical. Digital data management solutions that take on part, or all of this process are continually evolving to build in more efficiency both in terms of cost and time for HCPs. As ever with digital data, concerns over data security are noted that should be addressed and any necessary measures implemented by healthcare facilities to alleviate patients’ apprehension and ensure data protection.

Summary
Whether we are talking about HCP-patient engagement, HCP-to-HCP communication, or operational tools, the key benefit of virtual healthcare is its ability to drive down the overall costs of modern healthcare while not taking away from patient outcome and experience.

Taking into account the combination of current pressures on healthcare systems, including ageing populations, decreased funding and staffing levels, as well as ever-tightening targets for wait times, this clear advantage of going digital makes it worth pursuing.

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