An unprecedented uptake of digital solutions is rerouting healthcare


Tom Clarke

This is the first blog in our series of 'Setting priorities for digital investments' where we explore why now is the time for CIOs to step out of their traditional operational silos and lead the strategic conversations which will keep their business ahead of the competition. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst for practically every business, organisation and industry to rewrite their business models - although none have had to implement these as urgently as in healthcare. With huge pressures to reduce the volume of non-coronavirus related medical interaction and free up beds for only the sickest and those afflicted by the virus, healthcare providers have been forced to accelerate the adoption of digital solutions.

In the UK, GP surgeries have dramatically expanded video and phone appointments to avoid patients having to leave their homes. One practitioner in London commented that “we’re basically witnessing 10 years of change in one week” on recalling how practically 100% of his patient contact used to be face-to-face.

On hospital wards too, tools embedded into smartphones and smart-wear to track patient blood pressure, breathing, temperature and organ function remotely are being used to relieve pressure on capacity.

Providers of these digital solutions are seeing demand for their services rise exponentially. eClinicalWorks telehealth solution healow, which provides a range of services from digital doctor’s appointments to personal wearable devices that upload information in real time, saw usage scale up from 100,000 minutes to 1.5 million minutes per day in the three weeks from 16 March.

Breaking down the barriers to telehealth

Technology enabling patients to be diagnosed and monitored with minimal face-to-face intervention is not new. The problem being that historically, there has been a reluctance to adopt them in mainstream healthcare leaving them vastly underused, and their value often under-appreciated.

The pandemic has created a step change, an acceleration of digital adoption around the world. Healthcare providers and patients alike have had their hands forced in adopting technology in order to be resilient to the challenges we are facing right now.

In an interview for The Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, Anurag Agrawal, director of India’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology - part of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research - said: “Suddenly, after years of resistance to virtual health care, our physicians keenly want it. [COVID-19] is breaching the barriers to virtual health care faster than anything in history.”

In addition, research by Deloitte discovered that financial and regulatory barriers to the widespread adoption of telehealth in the USA were being lifted, with the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services releasing guidelines to loosen some of the restrictions around telehealth.

In the US, where healthcare is among the largest industries, being able to free up capacity by treating more patients remotely is not just a way to address the current crisis but an intuitive business transformation, instantly improving revenue capability in the long run.

Whilst these technologies cannot replace physical treatment, new confidence in the digital services connecting patients with their doctor and monitoring them from home may fundamentally change the way telehealth is used in the industry.

Consistency in digital provision

Often, our interactions with the digital world are not without some degree of friction, but as the demand for digital services increases; so too does the need to ensure these systems are robust enough to cope. Unabetted delivery of remote healthcare solutions is vital. If the systems receiving telematic data monitoring patient heart rate or lung function are inconsistent, the resulting variability could impact the time it takes to act on important information.

And there’s a more subtle issue. Where the presence and basic functioning of technology is no longer a differentiating factor, human experience - how people feel about their interactions with digital services - is what makes the difference between a system that is trusted and adopted and one that causes frustrations internally and externally. 

This is especially important in healthcare where people judge their experiences constantly, with medical staff under enormous pressure and patients at the very least feeling unwell and potentially also scared and confused. For these users, poor digital experiences aren’t just frustrating, they are a reason to resist telehealth and revert to old ways of engaging with the medical profession.

Think about how it feels when on a personal video call and the quality is degrading to the point that audio is lost intermittently or there’s a delay between image and speech, it’s easy to just give up. If you replace this scenario with an online appointment with your doctor under lockdown conditions, discussing symptoms that are painful or embarrassing or potentially very serious, then the need for consistently high quality experiences of these collaboration tools becomes clear. Particularly as doctors are currently seeing telemedicine as the only way of caring for people who can ill afford to lose track of everyday ailments.

Opportunity on the horizon

COVID-19 has put incredible pressures on the healthcare industry. But it also presents an opportunity for the behavioural shifts we are seeing across all industries to persist beyond the pandemic, to embrace the digital technologies that are becoming the foundation of the ‘new normal’. In the short run, organisations have adapted their processes and procedures for the purpose of continuity, but as the current climate begins to subside these changes must align to longer term societal trends and future models of working.

The post-pandemic world may see some reverting to old ways of doing things but the future of telemedicine and telehealth software is already taking shape, with a report from Markets & Markets predicting that the global telehealth market will increase by almost 17% in the next five years, to USD 55.6 billion.

For those leaders of organisations already offering systems that support their patients remotely, the next step will be in maintaining a consistent and reliable remote service. And that means being able to access data and insights that not only show whether these systems are operational but whether the people using them consider them to be working well.

In countries where healthcare is a paid-for service, the way that telehealth solutions and telemedicine are experienced make a huge difference to brand reputation, staff turnover and ultimately revenue. And even in countries where healthcare is state funded, understanding how patients feel about the telehealth systems they’re engaging with will influence adoption and the ability of the medical authorities to successfully operate these systems.


Human Experience in action

One of the top US healthcare firms has taken control of its digital ecosystem, gaining the right insights to serve their 10 million members efficiently, avoiding long patient waiting times, overcrowding and deterioration in patient health.

They recently engaged Actual Experience to audit their digital estate. The report produced for the period of assessment found that poorly performing digital services were having a dramatic impact on efficiency, particularly in regard to wasted time for staff.

In fact, at the locations where with the poorest experience score, a conservative estimate put this lost productivity at 5 mins per person per day due to the variable delivery of their digital healthcare solutions.

This converted to annual payroll waste of $130million across the business.

With data driven recommendations provided by Actual Experience, the healthcare firm could begin to mitigate this productivity loss by investing in the areas of their digital estate that optimise the experience of their telehealth offering by removing variability.

The firm now confidently employs collaborative software to support its patients remotely and deliver flawless services for its staff, recovering millions of dollars of resources in the process.