Digital health technology was a big deal before the COVID-19 pandemic, tipping the scales at $111.4 billion in 2019, with an anticipated CAGR or 29% expected to rocket it to $510.4 billion by 2024.
According to Orthogonal, the pandemic sweeping the world with the spread of the highly-infectious novel coronavirus only makes digital health even more important for the future of the industry. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect storm to highlight the strengths of digital health over its analog past.
Here’s why COVID-19 makes cements digital health as critical for the next generation of healthcare.
Reduce In-Person Contact
Maybe it goes without saying, but is there any more crucial healthcare watchword in the post-COVID landscape than keeping patients out of each others’ faces? And out of the faces of healthcare workers whenever possible?
Early in the pandemic, when PPE was in short supply, there was a decided feeling that heroic healthcare workers like doctors, nurses, and EMTs were cannon fodder, walking into a buzzsaw. If only they could have a little less facetime with coughing and sneezing patients.
The past paradigm of healthcare delivery assumed the luxury of providers to crowd patients in waiting rooms, filling out clipboards, with maybe a paper mask or a little hand sanitizer to protect them from the coughing patient sitting next to them that probably had nothing more serious than a common cold.
That’s over. Dutifully waiting for the doctor to see you already felt outdated. Nowadays, people are more likely to say “If I can work from a Skype chat, have happy hour by Google Hangout, and send my child to school via Zoom conference, why am I schlepping into a COVID wasteland to see, of all people, my doctor? Especially when home devices, possibly even my smartphone or smart watch, can record my heart rate, temperature, and other vitals?”
This is the promise of telemedicine and remote healthcare monitoring—to reduce our facetime with everyone except those who matter most, and prevent the spread of highly-infectious diseases that could descend on whole societies with little to no warning. This takes the form of:
- Telemedicine visits with doctors, nurse practitioners, and other professionals.
- Mail-in lab test collection kits for everything from COVID to allergies to STIs.
- Remote monitoring of devices like blood pressure and blood sugar monitors to reduce the need for follow-up visits on chronic conditions.
See More Patients
When COVID-19 reached pandemic proportions, everyone wanted to talk to their doctor. An allergic cough or a migraine headache suddenly felt like a harbinger of doom. Worried consumers reaching out to their doctors discovered that the flooded system resulted in long wait times, no available appointments, unanswered emails or voicemails.
A key innovation in digital fitness is to automate patient contact through the use of questionnaires, AI chatbots, and natural language processing (NLP) software that allows patients to “talk” to a virtual chat assistant as if they were talking to a care provider.
Some percentage of these patients need to talk to a provider, but solutions like IBM’s Watson Assistant and Apple-developed patient screening protocols have helped reduce the demand for in-person medical attention significantly, enabling providers to focus on the patients in the greatest need and getting patients the answers they need quickly, with minimal strain on the supply of healthcare personnel.
Analyze More Data
COVID-19 is well-fitted for its time—it’s a pandemic where data matters, landing on a commercial society obsessed with data. Everything from our Apple TVs to our Facebook accounts track data about our behavior that companies use to tailor sales plans to us.
So what if fast collection of vast amounts of data could actually save lives—for example, identifying a new viral hot spot in time to quarantine, perform contact tracing, and stop local spread in its tracks?
What about the ability to take patient data from mass testing to identify COVID risk factors like age, obesity, diabetes, and socioeconomic levels? Or the ability to track the effectiveness of protective measures like mask-wearing, shelter-in-place orders, or limited restaurant capacities?
AI computing has evolved to a point where our machines can look at the big picture and produce actionable, life-saving conclusions. If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us how clueless we were in the face of a potentially deadly virus, until we had reliable data.
Inform Patients in a Timely Manner
If the most common question in the early pandemic was “Where can I get a test?” a close runner-up had to be “How soon do I get my test results back?”
Turnarounds of 4-7 days were common, but under an onslaught of demand, those turnaround times stretched out to ten days or longer, with personnel facing more emails and phone calls than they could conceivably cope with.
In the meantime, tested patients were advised to quarantine until they had the results — which the current infrastructure was incapable of delivering in a timely manner. As late as August, people have still faced 5+ day waits for molecular test results.
The best results have come from digital healthcare providers, promising and delivering on 72-hour turnarounds thanks to automation and scalable business models—two of the hallmarks of digital entrepreneurship.
While humans can be remarkably good at forgetting the lessons of history, the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for years after the pandemic finally gets brought under control.
After all, one of the advantages of a virtuous system is that no one has to remember the trauma that occasioned it. The system is what carries us forward, in this pandemic and those to come.