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If Covid-19 was the catalyst for change, what’s the future for our digital health care?

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Ben Howlett of Public Policy Projects

Covid-19 proved to be the catalyst for better digital health. Ben Howlett, managing director of Public Policy Projects exclusively discusses the State of the Nation report, the impact of the virus on working practices, and tells Health Tech World what a digital revolution will mean for our health and care services

We are at a pivotal moment in the history of healthcare. The rising burden of chronic disease, an ageing population and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic all point to the need to accelerate plans for a more digitally enabled health and care system. However, the digitisation of healthcare is not simply about the use of new technology – it is about capturing the potential of data and insight produced by this new technology to inform and guide how healthcare is delivered in the future.

Impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic and the global response has pushed public health and digital into the public consciousness. In the UK, the rapid expansion of new forms of system collaboration and remote care has highlighted the need to rethink the ambitions of the digital and medical technology agenda to meet the needs of patients and improve outcomes. This transformation is striking, but cementing this foundation and building upon it as we emerge from the pandemic is essential to its sustainability.

There is increasing acceptance surrounding the usefulness of technology in healthcare service provision. Whether it’s the use of virtual care platforms, remote monitoring solutions, communication tools, digital apps or sophisticated data platforms, the health system is entering a new phase of digital maturity. The Wachter and Topol reviews laid a foundation for transformation, but a new path needs to be paved to ensure sustainability.

The introduction of social distancing and infection prevention measures has prompted the rapid acceleration in the uptake and usage of remote and virtual appointments. This has tested the maturity of the UK’s digital health capabilities and presented an opportunity to re-think the provision of care services. Early indications suggest that the public and healthcare practitioners have adapted quickly to this new way of interacting, which is likely to have a lasting impact on preferences for engaging services in the future. The NHS Long Term Plan (LTP) detailed that every patient will have the right to be offered digital-first primary care by 2023/24. The rapid adoption of virtual consultations throughout the pandemic has dramatically accelerated delivery against this goal.

A digital revolution

Highlighted by global policy institute Public Policy Projects (PPP) and its latest ‘State of the Nation: Digitisation and Medical Technologies’ report, digital innovation needs to sit at the heart of healthcare reform. The report explores the transformational opportunities for re-imagining frontline care, while examining the requirement of good leadership, digital skills, digital infrastructure and partnerships needed to deliver this.

This is a unique moment to consider the role, functions and skills needed for our future workforce. A plan needs to be developed setting a roadmap for how to get there. The recently published government White Paper, Integration and innovation: working together to improve health and social care for all, provides a further catalyst to consider this.

Industry leaders, policymakers, and the general public must sustain and promote a culture of continual collaboration, improvement and innovation within our services to strengthen strategic relationships and support digital and data-enabled care provision.

Moving forward

If digital is to be at the heart of service transformation, patients must be empowered to be co-creators of their own health and be recognised as informed decision makers rather than as passive recipients of care. Ensuring patients are engaged with services through access to their own health data will drive this. Citizens must, therefore, be informed about the development of new forms of digital- and data-enabled healthcare.

The UK health and care system finds itself at an opportune moment: to capitalise on digital progress that will likely never again accelerate so quickly. Healthcare reform must build on the momentum generated by the pandemic to ensure digitally enabled solutions are sustained in the long-term.

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