At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many experts in different sectors that intersect the field of health and technology began to ask the crucial question — how will the pandemic change the future of health? This was triggered by the fact that the pandemic itself had forced the sector to evolve rapidly to keep up with stay-home orders and the pressure put on healthcare systems across the globe. This question served to understand how we develop new connected systems and implement policies that can make it possible to safely and effectively provide care to patients from anywhere, reduce the cost to both clinicians and patients and also provide resources that ensure preventative care is at the forefront. Covid-19 proved that it was possible to do all of that, by putting in place systemic shifts that change and challenge the way we think about who, where and how quality medical care is provided and delivered. Although we are still at an early phase of change, the pandemic forced healthcare practitioners and different institutions to start working together to not only reshape the future of health but also to start challenging how we think about it.
Here are some of the biggest forces of change that are emerging in this space:
- Proactive, predictive and preventative health
From early on in the pandemic, as an understanding of Covid-19 developed, it was clear that factors such as underlying health conditions (comorbidities) and lifestyle factors like obesity made some people more vulnerable to serious illness than others. This shifted the public discourse, with more people looking to prioritise both mental and physical health during the lockdown, as did collaboration within communities to protect the vulnerable. Since then, there have been more conversations and efforts that unlocked a drive towards an approach that prioritises proactive and preventative healthcare - focusing on what the individual can do to give their immune system a fighting chance to weather the storm that came with the pandemic.
Thus, this kind of approach will potentially also empower clinicians in the future to take proactive measures to prevent disease by using predictive risk profiling technology. Thus we are seeing a heightened focus on the inclusion of existing technologies, like DNA and blood tests that inform people on things like lifestyle illnesses that they are genetically predisposed to. We offer some of these DNA tests at Prenetics—with options like Circle Premium that amongst other benefits, provide consumers with personalised data about their genetic risk of developing certain cancers, diseases and other health conditions. We also have products like Health Fit and Diet Fit that focus on empowering people with genetically informed insights around holistic fitness, diet and wellness. Our aim is to help people across the world take control of their health through early detection and preventative lifestyle interventions.
Potentially providing them and their healthcare practitioners with what they need to develop a long-term health plan that can stop illness before it happens. These home (self) testing innovations support existing healthcare services, by combining genetic information with current health data to shed light on how a person’s lifestyle influences their health.
On the part of the government, there has been an investment of resources that encourage people to live healthy and active lives in order to prevent illness. In the UK, more than 4,300 community networks were established involving an estimated 3 million people alongside which approximately 1 million NHS volunteers were recruited. Digital tools to help people manage their conditions and symptoms were used more extensively and new NHS-endorsed apps like Better Health that encouraged people to workout, buy healthier food and quit smoking was created to support those efforts. This preventative health space that pushes wellness and self-care has become an integral part of the government's approach to reducing pressure on the NHS going forward. It’s becoming less about treatment and more about how we empower people to live a holistic quality of life that’s free of illness.
2. A flexible approach to sites-of-care
Health systems across the world have been forced by the pandemic to make major investments in varying infrastructure capability that enables them to provide care to patients from the comfort of their own homes and to bring treatment facilities much closer to home. These programs enable patients who would traditionally be hospitalised to be managed in the home with remote monitoring and virtual connections to the hospital team and with in-person visits by a nurse or doctor. This means the pandemic forced the healthcare space to be more flexible and efficient by implementing multiple ways to access and receive care.
Thus according to the NHS, the pandemic has provided a new context that allowed previously long-held assumptions and norms about how care should be delivered to be urgently re-examined and changed, when necessary. It also changed how service providers within the system worked together, ensuring that there is better collaboration and partnership between hospitals and community care providers who live closer to patients.
We see this shift manifesting in two ways:3. The exponential rise of telehealth
The telehealth/telemedicine model is about the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies (1, 2, 3). It allows long-distance patient and clinician contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring, and remote admissions. This move decentralises medical services (both diagnostic and treatment) by bringing healthcare to the people at their convenience.
This was especially helpful at the height of the pandemic because it reduced physical traffic into hospitals that were already overwhelmed by Covid patients - therefore, also reducing the risks of more people contracting the virus if they were to go to hospitals.
According to feedback from health professionals, the increased use of telemedicine has had many benefits — like making it possible to reach more patients who may previously have struggled to get a physical facility for various reasons. It made it possible for them to see more patients a day because telehealth sessions are typically shorter than in-person visits, increasing access to more patients.
In 2020, the NHS saw the availability of online consultation tools expanded from 30% of practices in January 2020 to 90% in June that year. With positive feedback being shared by both patients and clinicians about these shifts. Those advocating for more investment in digital healthcare believe that in the future, this will bring more precise interventions, higher health outcomes, more efficiency, and eventually lower healthcare costs.
4. From inpatient to outpatient care services
This change was accelerated by healthcare redesign and policy drivers that also sought to relieve pressure on public facilities that were already overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients. Thus, by unlocking more alternative remote services like the “hot hubs”, other vulnerable patients going through treatment and needing care for other ailments could continue to receive healthcare services without potentially being exposed to the virus when they leave their homes.
Thus the shift in healthcare venues from inpatient to outpatient in addition to ambulatory surgery centres (ASC) and provider offices made this trend possible. This approach will continue to be expanded and explored going into the future because it offers patients options. This shift means that healthcare is now being personalised to meet the needs of the patient but also depending on the level of care they need. The space is becoming flexible and adaptive as the world changes and more resources become available.
5. AI powers clinical surveillance
By powering clinical surveillance with Artificial Intelligence and machine learning technology, health systems can begin to proactively identify an expanding range of acute and chronic health conditions faster and with greater accuracy than ever before. This allows clinicians to identify at-risk patients earlier so they can take action, significantly impacting patient outcomes and costs. Illnesses like diabetes, stroke, heart conditions and many others are set to benefit from the use of this technology. Thus according to experts, the symptoms and biomarkers for patients with diabetes can easily be monitored remotely using such software. Eventually, the data can be used to make treatments more targeted and precise for individuals.
Throughout the pandemic, this technology has been used to pave the way to better predict things like the next wave and prevent an escalation of the virus where possible. It made it possible to quickly connect the dots in real-time and then put appropriate public health measures in place (1). The insights empowered clinicians and hospitals with the data they needed to proactively monitor patient status for earlier interventions and expand data flow in meaningful ways. The surveillance provided information like the age of patients, where the disease was likely contracted, whether the patient was tested, and how long the patient was in the ICU, to name a few. It can potentially also help accurately predict future pandemics, enabling societies to be better prepared to respond.
In the future, this kind of machine learning technology can also be used to help hospitals prevent deaths that are sometimes attributed to human errors. According to experts, the algorithms can help discover the “gaps in the minds of a physician” – a pattern or trend that they may not have spotted when they cleared the patient for discharge. They believe that AI systems can recognise anomalies in clinical best practices and remind doctors when they fall short. The intent here would be to get ahead of patient re-admittance, essentially saving a life and helping keep patient costs down.
6. Value-based healthcare model
This model has been debated for a few years, but Covid-19 brought it to the forefront as hospitals struggled to be more efficient due to the high demand for services. Thus the necessity to develop healthcare models that focus on both efficiency and quality of care as opposed to a focus on the number of patients seen and costs was raised.
What exactly does value-based healthcare look like? According to experts, this kind of approach focuses on the measured improvement in a person’s health outcomes for the cost of achieving that improvement - it ties payments for care delivery to the quality of care provided while rewarding providers for both efficiency and effectiveness (1). Traditionally, most countries rely on a fee-for-service reimbursement model that promotes the number of services over the quality provided to patients.
The VBH model is important because by prioritising care, things like patient readmissions are reduced, it ensures healthcare practitioners aren’t overprescribing medication while also indirectly contributing to the improvement of preventative care—because patients are less stressed and so they get to focus on ways to stay healthier.
There is a lot happening in the healthcare space at the moment, but the biggest observation has been a systemic shift that demands more inclusivity and that quality of care provided to all patients (regardless of their background) be put at the centre. The future of healthcare demands that all parties within the industry start collaborating more effectively and that we rely on innovations and big data to deliver more personalised and affordable service to all those who need it.