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Comment: Embracing digital is the key to beating second coronavirus wave

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Dr Bayju Thakar, former NHS doctor and founder of Doctor Care Anywhere, on why digital innovation is needed in healthcare now more than ever.

Finally, light at the end of the tunnel! The Government has started slowly to ease lockdown restrictions and the new normal beckons. But what does it all mean? Well, for starters, social distancing is here to stay.

As is remote working for a large portion of the country’s workforce. That means routines, habits and time-honoured practices are going to change, some irreversibly so. And that is no less true of healthcare.

There is a growing recognition among healthcare professionals that we need to embrace technology. Our NHS does a brilliant job but, if we were honest, we would also admit that public health services continue to be disjointed in their day to day delivery of care, with the one hand frequently not talking to the other.

Patients are too often passed from pillar to post, from primary to secondary care and so on, with little understanding or insight into how or why. Paper notes are still the order of the day, and patients are simply told what to do and where to go, with little or no control or choice.

So, what’s changing? The public still needs to be able to access clinical expertise, guidance and support. But many will now, understandably, think twice before dropping in at the local GP surgery, or visiting a hospital, because of the fear of infection; and that’s unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. The result: more and more people are turning to remote consultations.

In the four weeks leading up to 12 April, the Royal College of General Practitioners found that 71% of routine consultations were being provided remotely, compared to 25 per cent for the same period 12 months before. Similarly, at Doctor Care Anywhere, we saw more than a 150% rise in video and phone consultations in April alone. That seems extraordinary. But is it?

Telemedicine isn’t new. It’s been widely adopted and effectively used in the private sector for over a decade. And, yes, while the NHS may have been slow to adopt it, its pleasing to see that it has been able to adapt so efficiently and effectively to changing demand in recent weeks.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a seminal moment for the way in which we deliver healthcare. Not only has it accelerated take-up of technologies like remote consultations but, more fundamentally, it has forced the NHS to take further steps toward fully embracing digital innovation.

As we acclimatise to the new normal, our institutions must grapple with how best to reduce crowding and inappropriate footfall at hospitals, clinics and surgeries across the country in order to minimise the risk of transmission.

The threat of a second wave of the virus as we race to develop a vaccine is real and looming. It must be avoided. It would be catastrophic for our collective well-being and safety, not to mention the destructive effect it would have on our already weakened economy.

Remote consultations can support changing lifestyles in the new normal by providing access to the advice and care we need without having to travel, easing pressure on front-line services. But using this technology solely as a method of directing patients away from, or into different areas of, the system – for example, as the NHS did with its 111 service during the initial stage of the pandemic to ensure appropriate footfall – is to neglect its true potential.

To minimise avoidable footfall, we need to reduce repeat and unnecessary visits wherever possible. That requires better and more seamless integration of, and communication between, primary care, diagnostics, secondary care, tertiary care and social care. The best way to do this? Digitising patient records and placing the patient at the centre of their own care pathway.

I was pleased to see NHSX and NHS Digital rollout GP Connect to all NHS GP surgeries and specialist care centres. The programme is a fantastic way of enabling secure sharing of patient information across primary care services, but it does only really scratch the surface in terms of the potential for embracing digital innovation to enable more efficient access to care for patients.

Doctor Care Anywhere has, for example, already developed and successfully implemented centralised digital patient records, enabling its GPs and specialist clinicians to order and review diagnostics remotely and in real time, and provide clinical advice and guidance remotely, simplifying a patient’s journey and reducing the number of steps in it.

That means fewer visits to hospitals and clinics; shorter times between diagnosis and the completion of treatment; better collaboration and more effective working between healthcare professionals; enhanced clinical outcomes; and most importantly as we strive to keep the R rate below one and minimise the possibility of a second wave, a significantly reduced risk of infection for both patients and practitioners.

Through digitising patient records and providing remote access to them, we can effectively hand back greater control to the patient, allowing them to decide how and when they receive care and advice, and crucially, where they are when they do, meeting greater demand for access at home.

Social distancing is now an integral feature of our everyday lives, and will be for some time. But it won’t be forever. Yet coronavirus has undoubtedly revolutionised the way we deliver healthcare, and irreversibly so. Consumer demand for remote medical advice and guidance is here to stay, as is greater control over our own experience with healthcare.

Crises create opportunity to reimagine and reform fragmented systems and unravel arcane processes. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Ministers and key NHS officials to think more fundamentally about the role digital innovation has to play in improving our national health services.

It’s just a pity that it’s taken a global disaster to get us to wake up and see the opportunity for improved healthcare that has long been staring us in the face. Now we have that opportunity, we must be bold and capitalise on it.

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