The healthcare industry could be considered one of the prime examples of how technology was used to transform certain processes in order to adapt to the new way of living. The high infectious potential of the virus and its rapid spread has called for multiple national lockdowns, which created a need to adjust the way in which many medical and care services are being delivered across these sectors. Some of the changes which needed to be made in order to enable the safe and effective functioning of the healthcare services were:
Freeing up space across hospitals in order to increase capacity for Covid-19 patients.
Enabling the safe discharge and monitoring of patients from hospitals.
Facilitate working remotely in order to minimize contact and decrease the infection rate.
The urgent manner in which these challenges needed answering determined an impressive response, both in terms of size as well as speed. In March 2020, the guidance issued by the government towards primary care providers advised that all patients needed to be triaged before a physical appointment could be scheduled. Online consultations were therefore introduced to enable the selection of which patients would have priority to schedule an appointment. Any other consultations which could be done remotely, where clinically appropriate, started being scheduled remotely, in order to minimise the spread of the virus.
These guidelines determined most of the general practices across the UK to adopt the new “triage” system, as according to the NHS, 99% of GP practices adopted remote consultations platforms. As a result, according to data by Nuffield Trust, during the month of May 2020, just 47% of total appointments were face-to-face. Comparing this percentage with how things were undergoing exactly one year prior, when in the month of May 2019, face-to-face appointments constituted 80% of total appointments, highlights the sheer speed and scale at which this transformation happened.
Alongside remote consultations other digital processes quickly followed. From the national rollout of the “Attend Anywhere” platform which supported online video consultations, to the launch of the NHS 111 online services to reduce the waiting time of emergency line callers, all processes were implemented as a direct result of the challenges brought by the pandemic. As the pressure on NHS services was mounting, the trialling of virtual wards began amongst certain trusts. This meant the provision of virtual care in home settings by professional teams of care providers.
None of these innovative processes however have been recently created or developed, as many pro ideas for digitalization of certain processes, the likes of the ones presented above, were long debated, and put on hold. The need to act quickly and decisively in the light of a delicate context was what ultimately determined the implementation of these processes, an implementation which was nothing short of remarkable both in terms of scale and speed. In an interview given to the BBC, Adrian Byrne, Chief Information Officer at University Hospital Southampton, grasped the incredible speed at which this transformation occurred: “many people within the NHS are talking about two years of transformation done in two weeks”.
According to research undertaken by The Kings Fund, this desire for digitalization of certain processes was mostly driven by practices themselves, which have had a much faster reaction time to adopting technology than large NHS organisations. Seeing a rise in need as well as demand, smaller software suppliers have been prompt to respond and delivered several technological enabled solutions aimed at improving existing processes. From video conferencing, the use of virtual ID cards or digital note taking, several processes have been digitalized as a result of the pandemic.
Despite the accelerated manner in the adoption of digital technologies, both the health and care industries find themselves at the start of a potential modernising process. In an article published by the King’s Fund, an argument is being made that many of the digital tools which were adopted during the pandemic are just a sheer reflection of physical processes, as the full potential of how technology could transform the care and health system has yet to be grasped. Based on this point, the way in which technology is currently being used in both medical and care settings could be argued is barely “scratching the surface”. However, even if this were true, some of the benefits brought by even a small digitalisation of certain processes is undeniable.
Increased efficiency, convenience or timesaving on labour tasks are just a few examples of how technology has impacted the health and care industry. This whole transformation process during a time of need, combined with some of the benefits which resulted out of it, have had an influence on the debate of a greater integration of technology within health and care. While previously, this debate existed, many of the digital solutions or innovations proposed were long postponed or rejected. An argument could however be made that this is no longer the case.
Seeing some of the clear benefits technology has had across the medical industry, an assumption could be made that the debate for a greater technology integration has swung from a yes or a no argument, to one in favour of it. As the argument is slowly changing, this change brought with it another topic of debate: how much should technology transform the medical and care industries?