As we emerge from the devastating effects of Covid-19, we must embrace the potential for technology to transform healthcare delivery.

With a post-pandemic world on the horizon, it’s time to prepare for the Covid-19 recovery and maximise the opportunities in healthcare that lie ahead. It will probably take between five and ten years to address the backlog of health issues that built up during the pandemic, so there is no denying the magnitude of the crisis — but the accelerated delivery of digital health that it forced on us presents an opportunity to embrace a new era in healthcare.

Covid-19 exposed many gaps in our ability to respond to a major crisis. We need to find ways to improve our day-to-day delivery of services while also developing greater resilience to weather inevitable future pandemics.

Provide more efficient access to care

Healthcare spending is forecast to increase at a CAGR of 4% over 2020–24, up from 2.8% in 2015–19, and healthcare spending as a share of GDP worldwide will probably hover around 10.3% through 2023. We can help to reduce the cost of healthcare by making it easier to access care early.

By giving physicians, pharmacists and other healthcare providers access to care systems in real time, we can intervene earlier and drive down the cost of care by treating conditions before they become more serious. Delayed detection and treatment of serious health conditions not only reduces quality of life, it also means the care required is likely to be more extensive — and therefore costly. However, if conditions such as heart disease and diabetes are detected early, lifestyle changes can form a larger part of effective treatment and therefore reduce the level of costly clinical interventions otherwise needed.

For patients, real-time access to care systems helps to ensure continuity of care and makes it easier to schedule appointments. Telehealth and remote patient monitoring, including the use of mobile apps for self monitoring — central elements of care during the pandemic — have proved themselves to be a cost-effective and reliable means to increase capacity in under-resourced and geographically dispersed health systems. Scaling these approaches to be the default for appropriate cohorts will require both new tools and new processes.

Focus on the patient

It might sound obvious, but we need to start approaching healthcare from the patient’s perspective. This means giving them the tools to manage their healthcare pathways. Individuals want access to their own information and some level of control over their health journey.

In the United States, the 21st Century Cures Act gives patients greater access to their records and makes it easier for organisations to share records. Healthcare providers, developers of certified health IT and health information exchanges and networks must permit patients to access their electronic health information through their preferred application.

Secure inclusive patient portals engage patients by allowing them, not only to access their health data, but to pay bills, refill prescriptions, schedule appointments and increase their involvement in managing their own care. In the future, we are likely to see more apps and services being built on top of this data, so the potential for increased self-management of patient care will expand.

Integrate healthcare systems

Simply put, healthcare systems need to talk to each other. The siloed approach to healthcare means consultants and other health practitioners have to log into multiple systems to find the data they need. This causes unnecessary delays and can make it more difficult to coordinate an effective care plan for the patient.

Although more than 80% of US physicians’ offices use some form of Electronic Health Records (EHRs), interoperability remains a huge gap. 2020 proved that it’s possible to move quickly and securely with interoperability. The same bold approach must be taken in adopting standards such as Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), a standard for exchanging EHRs.

A more efficient approach makes scans, test results and other records in the patient pathway available to the relevant people when required. These kinds of integrated systems are generally considered to offer superior quality and safety due to more effective communication and standardised protocols. Staff shortages, continuing cost inflation and service demand are intensifying the need for more effective and efficient use of scarce resources through integrated service delivery models.

Leverage health data from consumer wearables

The growing popularity of smart watches and other wearable devices means patients are recording substantial amounts of useful health data in real time on an ongoing basis. They are doing this while going about their everyday lives, so the data is being gathered in a non-invasive way.

Healthcare organisations could use that data in a careful and privacy-preserving way to produce better outcomes and decisions for patients. Harvesting and leveraging data from sensors and wearables to provide analytics and dashboards moves the pathway for care out of our clinical environment and into our homes. This creates a holistic picture of the patient in a process that is unobtrusive and cost-effective.

The data harvested from consumer wearables also offers the potential to intervene before health conditions advance. People with heart disease, lung disease and diabetes can use a pulse oximeter to monitor the progress of their illness by measuring significant changes in their blood oxygen levels, for example.

Develop tools for data decision-making

Combining advanced analytics and machine learning with the latest approaches to data lakes allows healthcare providers to make smarter clinical and operational decisions. In the area of clinical decision-making, for example, longitudinal data on individual patients and cohorts gathered from imaging, laboratories and genomics can help improve decisions on everything from one-off interventions to entire populations. From an operational perspective, real-time, enterprise-wide data enhances the efficiency of workflows, teams and entire organisations.

Researchers, providers and policymakers are turning to big data analytics models to help improve care delivery, allocation of resources and preventive health measures. Advances in data-collection technology are required to pull the salient information, process the data and provide meaningful information for physicians to improve outcomes and decision-making. A firmer data foundation, combined with physicians’ skills, techniques and experiences, will create the platform required to drive better outcomes for patients.

Further up the healthcare chain, patient data can be anonymised and supplied to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries to help them create better products, therapies and approaches. This will be particularly relevant during initial research and clinical trials.

As the industry continues to innovate and refine these tools, data-driven decisions will soon become standard, leading to more proactive, successful healthcare operations.

Where to next

From NearForm’s experience working at speed with governments and HLS companies, we have demonstrated our ability to deliver solutions such as the Covid-19 contact tracing apps and vaccine credentialing passport to get the world back up and functioning.

Our research team’s work on machine learning inside the browser and on low-cost wearables proves that it’s possible to quickly embrace these kinds of technologies and benefit from them now — not at some indeterminate point in the future.

Our initiatives have focused on privacy-preserving solutions that centre on patients, customers and businesses, allowing our clients to work quickly and effectively, without ever compromising on quality or security.

Technology is transforming health. Now that we’re emerging from the devastating effects of Covid-19, with vaccines being distributed across the world, the resurgence in digital health must drive the future of healthcare.

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