Rupert Spiegelberg, chief executive officer at Doctorlink, outlines some of the lasting changes brought about from this pandemic.
Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the outbreak of a new Coronavirus (COVID-19) was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January 2020, more than three million confirmed cases have been recorded around the world.
Organisations working to contain the spread of infectious diseases and supporting front line healthcare workers have become the focal point of the world’s attention, as all eyes turn on them to protect society and help us to emerge from this crisis.
Without question, the pandemic has also created numerous obstacles in providing care, including concerns about viral spread within primary care, potential shortages in intensive care capacity, and challenges obtaining sufficient levels of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Across the world, we have witnessed numerous countries respond with extraordinary feats. In the Chinese city of Wuhan, a makeshift emergency hospital to treat patients infected with COVID-19 was created in just ten days – setting a blueprint for affected countries around the world.
Meanwhile, in the UK, London’s ExCeL exhibition centre was converted into a temporary NHS hospital known as the Nightingale in just nine days, with many similar temporary facilities popping up across the country since.
Where general practitioners have sometimes been hesitant to trial new tools, they have quickly adopted and perfected the use of digital triage in response to the pandemic. Thousands of surgeries across the UK are now offering symptom assessment platforms, such as Doctorlink, to enable a greater proportion of appointments to be held by video and phone.
Meanwhile, thousands of ‘retired’ NHS staff have returned to work – including nurses, midwives, GPs and specialists of all kinds – willing to pitch in where they can, in order to tackle the virus’ peaks.
In many ways, it is quickly becoming clear that the way our healthcare systems work will change irrevocably as a result of this pandemic.
During the UK lockdown, A&E attendance has fallen by half in less than two months. A far cry from the ‘unprecedented demand’ and ‘longest waits on record’ reported late last year, now there are concerns that people with serious conditions are staying away out of fear and not getting access to the treatment they desperately need.
In response to this challenge, GPs in the UK have embraced a rapid roll out of digital healthcare solutions that lessen the need for face-to-face interactions between patients and their healthcare providers, but still enable treatment to be delivered.
In the UK, GP surgeries were advised by NHS England to move to a total online triage system and now only one in four patients are still seeing a GP face to face. As a result, we are seeing a complete overhaul in how healthcare is being delivered, with the point of care shifting to the patients.
Data from Doctorlink shows that general practices using its platform can expect to divert one in five patients to a more appropriate form of care – often safe self-care at home or consultation with a pharmacist – as well as reducing call volumes by a third and saving up to 15,000 clinical hours per practice, per year.
These compelling statistics show us why this shift in the perception of digital patient tools will be far from temporary. It is no exaggeration to say that digital healthcare will save many lives across the world in the coming months, and not just for those who contract COVID-19. With hospitals overwhelmed and NHS 111 deluged with calls, the accelerated digital roll out of video calls and online GP triage is providing a lifeline to the NHS.
Where uptake was once tentative, healthcare systems across the world are now supporting the widespread and rapid implementation of self-triaging tools to help manage patient flow and identify those with potential coronavirus risk factors or symptoms.
The hope now is that this sentiment will remain, and digital solutions will continue to become the norm, rather than the exception moving forward.
Whilst it is unfortunate that it has taken a pandemic to make us radically revamp the way healthcare is delivered, the crisis has brought around a new shift in attitudes when it comes to adapting and evolving to the opportunities that technology brings.
Despite the tipping point for a digital transformation being reached out of necessity, there is great potential now for us to re-shape the future of the delivery of healthcare across the world.
All that remains is for healthcare providers to take the leap.