97% of people who’ve communicated with the UK health service since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic have done so digitally. Bearing in mind this startling statistic, you may be wondering why we are talking about accelerating the digital transformation of healthcare. Hasn’t it already happened?
The short answer is no it hasn’t. Since March 2020 we have learned that healthcare practitioners and patients can work with digital solutions when they have to. Video calling apps, messaging and email have all been essential tools.
However, interactions between HCPs and patients are only one aspect of healthcare as a whole (albeit the most vital one). Furthermore, the sudden mass adoption of digital solutions has revealed many problems with the existing products, systems and software.
In early 2020 this web-based video conferencing tool to provide remote consultations for patients with HCPs was being introduced gradually by a few NHS trusts. Then suddenly the coronavirus crisis struck and it had to be urgently called into action everywhere.
In May 2020 it was widely reported that the system had crashed three times in a week. This was not surprising when a planned 18-month rollout had to be compressed into 12 weeks. Also, many service users and providers struggle with technology and just couldn’t get to grips with the software. Often, both doctors and patients found that it was simpler to use the telephone, so technologies were in place but not being fully used.
The conclusion is that the true digital transformation of healthcare has hardly begun. Quick progress has been made in some areas because of the pandemic, but this has been balanced by the postponement of other planned technology programmes.
The really dramatic enhancements to treatments and outcomes lie in the future. So let’s explore what the potential is and how we can all work together to bring that future forward.
What can digital transformation make possible for healthcare?
The majority of UK health providers are fast-tracking their digital transformation plans because of their experience of the pandemic, responding to an 80% increase in demand for remote services. They perceive the biggest problem as cultural resistance to technology, rather than cost.
It has been estimated that after the coronavirus crisis, one in three healthcare consultations will be virtual, especially when the technology becomes more reliable and user-friendly. Before the pandemic, it was one in twenty.
But the growth of telehealth is just one of many ways in which digital technologies are going to transform healthcare and improve outcomes in the next few years. Here are just some of the exciting possibilities.
Getting insights and predictions from big data
Everyone has access to vast quantities of data nowadays, but it’s no use to anyone when it’s just an incoherent mass of raw information. Managing and analysing all this data can change so much:
- Improving the prescription of medications. Quick, efficient examination of patient records can unearth inconsistencies or oversights and alert healthcare professionals to possible errors.
- Preventing “frequent flyers”. Big data analysis could get to the root of ongoing problems that cause patients to visit GP surgeries and hospitals repeatedly and needlessly.
- Anticipating demand. Big data can help to predict demand patterns for hospitals and clinics, so resources can be focused where and when they are needed.
- Driving better understanding of the healthcare market, so pharma and equipment companies can develop the right products and market them to the right people in the right places.
Harnessing virtual reality
VR technologies are being developed that can provide drug-free methods of treating chronic pain, and also new ways to treat conditions such as anxiety, PTSD and stroke. Gamification using VR headsets can coax wearers into more active lifestyles. And VR can be used to help children with autism learn how to navigate their world.
On the other side of the fence, surgeons will be soon able to use virtual reality simulations to practice complex procedures and perfect their skills. It has been estimated that VR visualisations can reduce post-surgical wound pain by 24% and that VR-trained surgeons work 29% faster, making seven times fewer errors.
Looking further ahead, but perhaps sooner than we think, surgeons will even be able to perform virtual operations by controlling robots remotely.
Wearable devices are increasingly familiar, with fitness trackers adorning millions of wrists. But patients can also be equipped with healthcare wearables that monitor and record vital data and transmit it to their doctors. It has been estimated that the global market for wearable medical devices will rise from $8 million in 2017 to $27 million in 2023. They include:
- Heart rate monitors
- Sweat meters to track the blood sugar levels of diabetics
- Oximeters to measure the oxygen content of the blood for people with asthma or COPD
Wearables can drive preventative medicine that saves the health service money. Constant monitoring of conditions makes health crises such as heart attacks less likely to lead to expensive emergency treatment.
They can also enhance engagement. One report has found that 44% of people feel more in control of their health when equipped with a wearable device.
The healing power of AI
AI can revolutionise drug development with machine learning and sophisticated data management, reducing the duration of clinical trials and bringing them to market much more quickly. The obvious recent example of this has been the amazingly speedy development of Covid-19 vaccines. A process that typically took six to ten years in the past was successfully compressed into a few months.
Another way innovative technology can enhance outcomes is via AI-powered radiology, with computer scanning of radiological images leading to faster, more accurate cancer diagnosis. The software can spot almost imperceptible signs that might escape the human eye, and reduce the likelihood of mistakes.
This is just one aspect of the coming AI-driven revolution in precision medicine. The synergy between medical imaging, drug development and genomics will make it possible to provide personalised therapy programmes tailored to each patient’s genetics and lifestyle.
Mental health: the “woebot” will see you now
One of the most surprising technological healthcare developments for many people is the advent of AI programmes and chatbots to tackle mental health issues.
The conventional wisdom is that it’s the combination of professional knowledge and skill with human warmth and empathy that makes therapy work. Yet powerful recent evidence shows that 82% of people would prefer to share their mental health struggles with a robot.
The latest advanced AI, including natural language processing, is proving highly successful and popular, with skills including the ability to detect signs of rising depression in the patient’s voice. Patients also worry less about being judged when talking to a robot, and can find it easier to discuss potentially sensitive topics.
This is why the global healthcare chatbots market is projected to reach $314.3 million by 2023, rising from $122 million in 2018. However, experts are at pains to point out that the role of robots in mental health treatment will always be as a complement to human therapists and counsellors, rather than a replacement.
Welcome to the digital hospital
One of the visions of what the technological transformation of healthcare can lead to has been described as the digital hospital.
Advocates envisage a future in which information will be stored and managed so that patients can serve themselves from a menu of digitally available services and solutions. This will free HCPs from many of the burdens of admin, leaving them free to focus on providing treatment and care.
Could Blockchain make patient data more secure and accurate?
Best known as the mysterious technology behind cryptocurrencies, Blockchain is finding more respectable applications in healthcare. The medical and pharmaceutical industries are starting to realise that a decentralised network of computers (the essence of Blockchain) could help to keep people’s vital electronic health records safe from hackers and under the patient’s control. It can also make it possible to manage fragmented data, preventing duplication and loss of data leading to misdiagnosis and delayed or undelivered treatment.
How can your organisation keep pace with the speed of change?
The healthcare experience was already changing quickly for patients, practitioners and suppliers. Then Covid came along and pressed hard on the accelerator. So much is happening so rapidly that we haven’t even mentioned the role of digital opinion leaders, or the way social and digital media are transforming healthcare marketing strategies.
It is easy to feel bewildered by the pace of transformation, especially if your organisation is as busy and overstretched as almost everyone involved in healthcare is at the moment. That’s where we at BBI Health can be an invaluable ally.
We are a full-service healthcare marketing agency with over 30 years of combined experience in the sector. You will meet a hand-picked team of strategists, creatives, developers and digital communications experts with a proud record of helping a variety of healthcare brands to achieve their goals and make the most of the latest innovations. Why not find out more about us or get in touch for a no-obligation conversation about the biggest challenges you are facing?