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Opinion

The future of hybrid healthcare delivery

By Tom Whicher, CEO and Founder, DrDoctor

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Once upon a time, we’d have associated the traditional workplace with full-time office work.

But in the aftermath of the covid pandemic, traditional workspaces have undergone a huge shift, and hybrid appears to be here to stay.

I recently came across a statistic from Gartner, which estimates that by the end of this year, 39 per cent of knowledge workers globally – that’s IT professionals, physicians, pharmacists, engineers, accountants and more – will have some kind of hybrid working arrangement.

This cannot only be reflected across certain industries and for certain individuals.

The next challenge we face when it comes to the future of work, is in how we can reflect this model in other aspects of life.

How can we deliver services that can benefit from a hybrid model?

Where I’d like to see a more hybrid approach to working is in the healthcare sector.

Why Hybrid?

Virtual healthcare solutions were developed out of necessity during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For many, we moved to a fully remote method of delivering care, with patients unable to be seen face-to-face like they once were.

I believe that a truly successful healthcare model for the future lies somewhere in the middle. It should be hybrid – both virtual, and in-person.

This is because many patients still need to be seen in person in order to properly diagnose and identify any red flag symptoms.

But, on the flip side, many patients who don’t need to be seen in person are still being asked to come in – and the system simply can’t handle an entirely in-person healthcare programme.

In the UK, the NHS is experiencing a huge supply-demand challenge. Staff are stretched too thinly. The NHS is struggling to hire fast enough.

Industrial action is contributing to further strain, with data from NHSE revealing that more than one million appointments were cancelled due to strike action.

And wait lists are continuing to grow, having reached more than 7.68 million people.

We’ve seen from the shift to hybrid work that office workers can still be as – and if not more – productive from home.

So why can’t we approach healthcare with a similar model?

If healthcare is designed to reflect this lifestyle, it will enable a more focused approach to delivering quality care – when and where it’s needed, across the globe.

Adopting the right tools for hybrid healthcare 

Taking the first step towards developing a hybrid healthcare system requires us to harness proven tools like Patient Engagement Platforms (PEPs), that enable patients to take more control over the management of their health.

PEPs are already being deployed across the NHS and enhancing patients’ ability to manage their appointments and follow-ups themselves.

Through PEPs, patients can gain direct access to the appointment calendar, view upcoming appointment slots in real-time and confirm, rearrange or cancel their appointment as suited.

It also allows them to prepare for their appointments by filling in digital forms and assessments prior to attending an appointment, so that healthcare professionals are equipped with all the necessary information ahead of the meeting.

This will allow healthcare providers to predict diagnoses or schedule tests ahead of their visit to the hospital.

This is a critical tool if we’re to reduce the number of appointments logged in the system as Did Not Attend (DNAs), valuable appointment slots that could have otherwise been used by someone else.

And it’s not just about reducing DNA’s – it’s also about making it a more positive experience for the patients.

A great example of PEP in practice is at University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB).

More than 1.5 million appointment notifications and nearly 800,000 digital letter notifications were  sent to patients between the 1st of January and 31st of August in 2023.

This alerts patients of new appointments, but also allows them to reschedule or cancel their appointments where necessary, by logging into the hospitals PEP, which in this case is powered by DrDoctor.

By implementing a digital service, UHB saw that 72 per cent of patients viewed their letters online, which not only eases the patient experience by keeping all appointment and care records in the same online space, but also cuts the administrative burden on the clinician side.

Fewer pieces of admin means more time for NHS staff to focus on delivering the best quality patient care.

Enabling Patient Initiated Follow-Up

Another way to facilitate hybrid healthcare is by getting more patients to join a Patient Initiated Follow-up (PIFU) pathway.

This empowers the patient to only book an appointment if – or when – they need it, rather than waiting on the Clinician’s green light.

This is critical to supporting a more hybrid healthcare system.

In a report we commissioned with EDGE Health, we found that increasing the number of patients on a PIFU pathway could lead to at least 1.18 fewer outpatient follow-ups per patient.

Nottingham University Hospitals (NUH) implemented PIFU in 2022, resulting in 32,000 forms sent and 31,000 patients contacted through Quick Question, both with a 60% respondent rate.

This means that 60 per cent of patients provided information about their symptoms prior to seeing the doctor – giving the doctor a leg-up in treatment.

As well, 2.8 million notifications were sent to patients.

The notifications not only encouraged attendance, including 12,000 video appointments that saved clinical time, but empowered patients to reschedule appointments they couldn’t attend.

6,000 patients requested to reschedule digitally which means that 6,000 phone calls were avoided and less administrative tasks were required.

PIFU not only reduces the burden of administrative tasks behind appointment booking, but it reduces unnecessary appointments altogether.

A look ahead

The difference between hybrid working and hybrid healthcare?

Hybrid healthcare is more than just a shift in mindset – it requires substantial investment into the infrastructure of the NHS to facilitate its success.

We’re making good progress.

In July 2023, the NHS announced plans to ease pressures on hospitals going into another winter of potential COVID-19 outbreaks and seasonal illness.

This investment will support the NHS in discharging  more than 12,000 fit patients to social or community care practices, or traffic control centres.

While this is a step in the right direction, for the longer term, the issue needs to be tackled from its core.

And that means building the right digital infrastructure to facilitate a hybrid model of healthcare that enables patients to be seen when and where they need to be.

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