The COVID-19 pandemic, and the restrictions which followed, forced all of us to change the way we live and work. There have been lasting effects on society, the value and legacy of which will be debated long into the future. Nevertheless, the pandemic required us all to consider how we might retain access to vital services given difficult and disruptive circumstances. As case numbers fluctuate and government policy shifts, the demands on every industry are also changing. However, the service which is arguably at the forefront for most is healthcare, principally how it can be delivered to ensure that all conditions can be treated as effectively as they were before the pandemic, not only in the identification and management of COVID-19 symptoms. This has left a challenge for healthcare at a magnitude it has likely not faced for decades, both in terms of delivery of a high-quality service for patients in challenging circumstances, and the technological developments required to deliver such levels of service. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the development and wider implementation of new healthcare technologies, not least, national, and international scales of track-and-trace, which will have significant impacts both the healthcare system and society in general, in the forthcoming years.
Technologies at the forefront
Recently, there has been strong introspection into the function of healthcare services, such as those provided by GPs, and their relationship with patients. For example, there have been reports of community doctors informing the media that usual face-to-face contact with patients will be unlikely to return, considering current demand. This leaves an opportunity for implementing new technologies to shoulder the burden. Fundamentally, there has been a shift to remote appointments and triage, thereby reducing load on healthcare facilities and lowering associated infection risk. Technologies which are transforming healthcare delivery, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, include mobile and app-based technologies, wearable devices, how public health messages are both rapidly and effectively communicated, and the analysis and interpretation of data. The latter is especially important, as this enables changes in case numbers or spikes in case numbers in a particular region to be identified promptly. Large-scale data processing, using resources including quantum computing, and predictive analytics are invaluable technologies for managing such demand.
However, manufacturers and healthcare providers must be cautious before rolling out extensive digital technologies for healthcare delivery. Accessibility must be top priority, and of course, there is still public hesitancy surrounding data protection. The Digital Technology Assessment Criteria is one major step to build confidence that new digital resources are both safe and innovative, for staff and patients. It is not quite clear where digital technologies will add true value to the healthcare infrastructure, and naturally, this will take time to develop as technologies are optimised.
Consequences for developers
In general, developers of the digital healthcare technologies referred to here have already been working on such solutions, and only now has there been the necessity to implement on a wider scale than thought likely by 2021. There has been an increased responsibility on developers to ensure the correct data safety protocols are in place, both in terms of the accuracy of the patient data, which is recorded, and its security in communication between different healthcare departments and from the patient themselves. Cybersecurity remains a key challenge, and the responsibility of developers, without which the public might quickly lose confidence in the system. Developers must also ensure that the data generated can be shared and processed reliably by collaborative teams of healthcare professionals, as many treatments rarely rely on the input of one healthcare professional, and that resources can be appropriately allocated.
Another major challenge for developers is ensuring that the infrastructure is there to widen the reach of the technologies, for example to rural communities, or to those who advanced technological interfaces are not intuitive. Developers also must be mindful that any new digital technology to be implemented by healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, and administrative staff, will need to be straightforward to operate and immediately intuitive. There will also need to be mechanisms in place for linking with current hospital and healthcare service infrastructure, thus requiring a deep level of engagement with end-users to ensure outcomes with patients at the central focus. There has already been progress in this respect, for example through the Patient Coalition for AI, Data, and Digital Tech in Health. Though primarily representing the patient position, such a coalition provides an important perspective for the considerations of developers of new digital technologies for a post-COVID-19 world.
Adjusting to new climates
As society has had to adjust to restrictions and disruption to daily life, innovators of the technologies we all rely upon have also had to adapt. Of course, the business world has seen surges in the adoption of digital technologies in response to the pandemic, and therefore the providers of these facilities have had to ensure the infrastructure has been in place to support this, whether it be upscaling or building new capacity, such as managing significantly increased levels of internet traffic. In terms of the developers of digital technologies for healthcare, there will be a requirement for them to fully engage with how prepared we are as a society to address health emergencies into the future. In addition, there will be translational impacts of these new capabilities for how patients are diagnosed and treated in general, from the remote monitoring possible with wearable devices in the home, to rapid communication of public health messages. It is still too early to tell precisely how the landscape will change for developers of digital technologies, but increased demand will need to be managed, as healthcare is likely to continue its shift towards a digital infrastructure. Therefore, appropriate evaluation and regulation will be vital to ensure our society is suitably equipped to manage and respond to future pandemics and health crises. Med-Tech Innovation News