Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella remarked earlier this year that the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic saw ’two years of digital transformation in two months‘. As the world moved to working, shopping, and socialising online, necessity drove many aspects of healthcare to being delivered remotely too.
With vaccines being rolled out around the world and some countries already administering booster shots, it’s time for us to start thinking about post-COVID health care. Where should digital health go now — and what innovations and lessons from COVID-19 should we keep going forward?
There’s no doubt the pandemic has accelerated digital health. Although there’s plenty of exciting digital advances, every step forward brings with it new questions for us to tackle. What role should wearables have in diagnosis? What’s next for long-term arrhythmia monitoring?
It’s time for us to embrace a new era in digital health. However, for new innovations to truly work for both physicians and patients, we have to help provide answers on everything from diagnostic accuracy to managing workload.
Embracing digital change
A lot of the digital health changes we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic are probably permanent — especially if, as seems increasingly likely, the virus becomes endemic and never goes away completely. A different state of ‘normal’ will continue to drive ongoing digitalisation.
For the most part, I view this as a good thing. To use an example from my native Australia, although we’ve had telehealth for a long time, obtaining reimbursement had been difficult for about ten years. COVID-19 quickly made it a necessity.
Now doctors and patients say it’s convenient and leaves them no worse off. It’s especially useful for patients with mobility challenges, such as those whose family members may find it difficult to drive them to follow-up appointments or those living in remote areas. In Australia in particular, we saw a large uptick in remote monitoring use in a very short space of time. Now that the advantages of digital health are clearer, it’s going to be harder to go back.
Tackling the challenges of the digital health revolution
But there’s also another side to digital health evolution. There’s a lot of information and data that comes through remote monitoring that physicians need to review. One of our biggest challenges, especially in industry, involves optimising that process to make the review as easy as possible.
Current clinic setup is not always in line with what it takes to run a successful remote clinic. Although physician training and mindsets are evolving to incorporate more digital solutions, our industry must also increasingly see itself not only as a provider of products, but as a service-oriented provider of digital solutions.
What do I mean by that? Specifically, helping physicians to filter and make sense of the increasing amounts of data they receive — to focus on the most useful, actionable information to help their patients — will only become a bigger part of our responsibilities.
The limits of wearables and the future of clinical monitoring
One challenge for physicians right now is the increasing use of wearables. While it’s encouraging to see so many patients taking initiative in their own health, a lot of the data coming from wearables — at least at the moment — is noise. More patients are coming to their doctors with concerns, but wearable readings are sometimes simply not of high enough quality for physicians to act on.
Although the technology around this is getting better all the time, it’s particularly important for us all to bear in mind recent guidance from heart rhythm societies(1) around the world when it comes to alerts from wearables or other consumer grade devices. Most physicians are simply burdened with too much data to review.
That’s why I believe the next frontier in digital health involves pioneering services, fully or partially automated by Artificial Intelligence, that can help physicians manage workflows. That process must be based on patient indications at scale to a very high diagnostic accuracy. That’s already happening with diagnostics and arrhythmia monitoring in particular, but there’s still a long way to go.
We’re not going to get there overnight but the best place to start is in shifting people’s mindset. The pandemic has accelerated digital health to a point where there’s no use trying to just return to business as usual. That’s why industry now must make the jump from providing products and raw data to furnishing physicians with information that’s high-quality and actionable. We’re all digital service providers now.
(1)- CTA, HRS Unveil Recommendations for Managing Personal Health With Wearables at CES 2020