For people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a long-term lung illness, COVID-19 is having a major impact. The pandemic has disrupted traditional models of care and put vulnerable patients at risk. Keeping patients out of hospital – by reducing scheduled visits and avoiding emergency admissions – has become the top priority.
A silver lining in these difficult times is that the outbreak has sparked increased interest in telehealth, home monitoring and connected devices – highlighting innovative technologies that facilitate remote care. However, this has also brought into sharp focus a number of barriers to digital health.
The value of digital health
Not only can digital technologies enable care in a way that COPD patients are increasingly likely to adopt during the pandemic, it also opens the door to better services that offer peace of mind through remote monitoring. Connected non-invasive ventilation therapy gives patients the comfort of knowing they are not alone – their care team has access to how they are doing with their therapy if there is a problem.
By identifying and treating issues early, distressing and high-risk exacerbations may be reduced. This in turn may control the number of costly admissions, some of which begin in emergency departments and lead to intensive care units (ICUs). This translates into benefits for patients, healthcare professionals and the wider health system.
Connected devices offer opportunities for research on big datasets. Researchers can analyse a wealth of population healthcare data along with other datasets, including patient activity and environmental factors, to learn how best to manage patients and avoid exacerbations. Sensor-enabled inhalers can also collect valuable information about how devices are used or identify patient adherence issues.
However, despite telemonitoring technologies having the potential to open the way for big data research, most of the European countries are still behind when it comes to effectively initiating those strategic innovative research programs.
COPD- A leading cause of death
The need for greater uptake of digital solutions to manage or treat COPD patients has been rising for several years. The disease is now the third leading cause of death globally. Mortality from other major causes of death – including cancer and cardiovascular disease – tend to stabilise thanks to earlier diagnosis and better treatments. COPD has not yet benefitted from similar improvements. Patients are still confronted with several challenges, among them being late diagnosis, late identification of worsening episodes and care fragmentation, which digital technologies have the potential to improve. Now is the time to rethink COPD care.
Homecare support services, modernised reimbursement systems, and clear legislation on the use of healthcare data are needed to make the most of digital health. A few European countries are seeing the opportunities and embracing digital health. However, more coordinated efforts are needed across the board.
A path forward
France has empowered physician-prescribed homecare providers to manage ventilated COPD patients in their own homes with remote monitoring. Germany’s Digital Act takes a holistic view of connected care and telemonitoring, paving the way for reimbursement. New legislation in Finland has stuck a balance on using medical data to improve patient health without compromising on security or privacy.
It is time to knit together this patchwork of solutions into a package of measures that could be applied across Europe. Achieving this will bring benefits and efficiencies across the health system. Most importantly, it will empower patients to become key players in their own care team, ensuring they receive high-quality connected care in the safety of their own homes.
 WHO. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death