COVID-19 has pushed digital health forward, but challenges still persist
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen unprecedented impact on global level, not just on an economic scale but also putting health systems around the world on their limits. At the opening panel of the HIMSS & Health 2.0 Europe Digital Conference titled Leveraging Digital Health to Predict, Prevent and Manage Future Health Crises, moderator Hal Wolf, President & CEO, HIMSS, together with the four panelists spoke about the impact of digital technologies on the COVID-19 responses in Europe, and the ongoing work that needs to be done ensure access and inclusivity in the provision of digital health.
The acceleration of digital health transformation
“COVID-19 has given impetus for countries to accelerate the adoption of digital health,” said Dr Hans Kluge, Regional Director for Europe, WHO, Denmark. Digital adoption had to be done at an unprecedented speed - telemedicine for the delivery of healthcare really got scaled up. He added that in the WHO European region, 30 out 53 countries have some manner of digital contact tracing for COVID-19 despite privacy challenges and issues around the use of secondary data.
Dr Paivi Sillanaukee, Director General, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Finland explained that COVID-19 has accelerated digital health transformation in her country. She noted that the increase in online health information has been of enormous help in Finland and citizens have gained reliable, up-to-date information from these platforms. This also led to the decrease of in health line calls and required healthcare workers, which in turn has helped the health service system to cope better.
“Two to seven per-cent of doctors were ready to offer video-consultations (prior to the pandemic), but now it’s closer to 60%,” said Dr Gottfried Ludewig, Director 'Digitalisation and Innovation', Federal Ministry of Health, Germany. The country’s contact tracing app called Corona Warn-App has seen about 17.5 million downloads and Dr Ludewig noted that the app has a connection to laboratories which offer COVID-19 testing, which helps inform people much faster than before after they have been tested.
In addition, a digital ICU registry to help monitor bed capacity was also implemented and set up within four to six weeks – it would usually have taken two to three years.
Challenges in three broad areas
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a big catalyst in the rapid adoption of digital health tools, Dr Pravene Nath, MD, Global Head, Digital Health Strategy, Personalized Health Care, Roche, USA observed some challenges in three broad areas: access and administration, operations and personalisation.
“In terms of access and administration, there was a widespread of telehealth in a short period of time but it is still very uneven, in terms of addressing all populations and the true seamless experience that’s needed to reduce friction during a time when there is limited supply,” explained Dr Nath.
In operations, he said that demand forecasting, management of supply chain, capacity management is critical and the technology is ready for that. If these tech tools can be handed to healthcare providers, they can do operational decision making in real time with real data.
Lastly, Dr Nath commented that there is still some way to go in digitally enabled, condition-focused (personalized) care – things like remote patient monitoring when coupled to a care delivery model that allows moving past the encounter.
Dr Kluge similarly observed that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed significant shortcomings, particularly in the capabilities of countries to access real time data. From the WHO perspective, there is a need to step down from academic solutions and move towards pragmatic and implementable solutions, taking into account the specifics at the national and subnational context.