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What does 2021 look like for health tech?

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As the new year gets into full swing, with plenty of challenges across the healthcare sector, we asked a number of experts how they see technology making a positive impact in 2021.

Tom Scott, sales director, Alcidion

Healthcare organisations saw a dramatic digital adoption and transformation in a very short period during 2020, and that will continue through 2021 with one of the largest vaccination programmes ever seen.

The rate of digital transformation over the past year has been significant across the NHS, but there is much more to do. Key lessons from the technical challenges that organisations have faced should be reviewed locally and nationally to capitalise on the immense amount of hard work seen from the NHS, central bodies, and suppliers.

The challenges of the pandemic continued to bring the importance of data quality into sharp focus. I suspect that healthcare organisations will put more emphasis on solutions that introduce quality data layers across the healthcare spectrum in 2021.

This approach also supports an ‘ecosystem’ model, allowing organisations to introduce innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence and clinical decision support over their existing systems, while driving new models of care where patient-generated and wearables data is incorporated. These technologies further support the extension of remote care using tailored digital tools beyond Covid-19. Immediate examples include chronic conditions and post-acute care.

An imperative for digital technology will be to reduce the cognitive burden on clinicians. Automation of tasks and pathway creation will be critical to alleviate pressure for frontline staff.

The supplier community must accept its own change in 2021. Enhanced partnerships and orchestrated approaches will emerge allowing healthcare organisations the freedom to choose the best solutions for their region.

In parallel, investment will need to maintain the level of transformation seen in 2020. The NHS will look for effective ways to continue technological transformation, procure clinically engaged applications and leapfrog digital maturity to deliver enhanced ways of working economically. This will mean organisations avoiding expensive drawn-out ‘rip and replace’ programmes, in favour of agile digital approaches that complement existing technologies and deliver results at pace.

Richard Jones, chief strategy officer, C2-Ai

We are facing a radical change to the way we care for patients, and two things in particular will have to be addressed. The first is that there will be an increasing shift of moving care away from hospitals to community or at-home scenarios, where possible. There are companies in the UK and US that are pioneering this model, and this is partly because healthcare is approaching 20 per cent of GDP (in the US), with waste amounting to approximately 25 per cent of total healthcare spending at $750bn per year.

Although the percentages are not quite as high in Europe, the same problem does exist and so the second issue is that we will need to tackle morbidity, clinical variation and harm more assiduously. These have been hard to measure in a significant way in the past but must now be addressed to improve health system efficiency as we try to balance the books after the pandemic. At C2-Ai the conversations we are having in Europe and the US are increasingly focused on using our unique systems that save money by reducing avoidable variation and harm, while demonstrably improving outcomes. The best quality of care is often the lowest cost – as the US Advisory Board and Australia’s Grattan Institute have stated – and we anticipate the pandemic being the jolt that changes healthcare forever. The pain of change has to be less than the pain of staying as you are, otherwise change will not happen. Covid-19 has, unfortunately, introduced human pain and financial strain to systems around the world that mean they cannot stay where they are.

Bobby Zarr, senior director of healthcare, uPerform by ANCILE Solutions

Over the past year, we’ve all witnessed the challenges traditional training methods pose to health systems – including the need to train and cross-train without the classroom, providing at-the-elbow support to remote staff, and communicating out urgent policy or procedural information effectively. This year Covid-19 forced hospitals to adapt their approaches to EPR training and embrace digital learning. I predict this is only the beginning of healthcare’s transformative shift in health IT training.

With digital enablement a primary strategic objective of most healthcare organisations, there is an even greater need for a scalable strategy for application training and support. While we all wish we could assign each EPR user a trainer to shadow them and provide at-the-elbow support, we know that’s not feasible.

To successfully roll out software and keep up with system changes long-term, health systems will need to invest in digital learning to provide cost-effective, timely training and support to meet their digital enablement goals, bend the application training cost curve, and improve the efficiency and use of their systems.

Standing still is no longer an option.

Alan Lowe, CEO, Visionable

Regionalised technology adoption, digital pathways and the early beginnings of a 5G revolution in healthcare are just some things to look out for in 2021.

As more decision-making starts to transition to integrated care systems, we will see an amalgamation of technology across individual regions. This will also result in fewer siloed solutions and a greater consideration for patient pathway scenarios when applying technology.

The emergence of ecosystem working amongst suppliers will also be key to embedding the right technologies to address different aspects of those pathways. The last year has seen rapid digital adoption in response to Covid-19. 2021 will see thinking progress from urgently plugging gaps to using digital as part of system design.

For example, a video consultation can provide a mechanism for a patient to speak to a clinician – but does an effective pathway mean augmenting that video with mobile MRI scanners, approved blood pressure cuffs, Bluetooth scales, and other appropriate devices?

As healthcare organisations strategise, the very early stages of a 5G revolution in healthcare will begin to take place. Hospitals and healthcare systems will start to discover clinically led use cases as they dip their toes into the early planning stages for 5G infrastructure in preparation for future architecture.

More immediately, 5G will enable new things to happen in location-based environments. But with connected ambulances and other connected environments already firmly on the agendas of NHS organisations we are engaging, some of the possibilities for the future will start to be thought up in the next 12 months. In the coming years mobile 5G could bring about as much, or even more change than the introduction of the smartphone. 2021 will be the year it all started.

Jane Rendall, managing director, Sectra UK and Ireland

A focus on people will be fundamental in 2021. Businesses in healthcare will widely be reviewing how we can continue to work effectively, how we can achieve a low carbon footprint, how we can support customers, and how we can ensure wellbeing for our employees.

If the future is going to be a rollercoaster ride, we need to invest in a talent pool of people that have high emotional intelligence and adaptability to cope with anything that is going to be thrown at us.

As a leader in a company working in digital health, I count myself lucky to have good people – a team I’m proud of and who have responded swiftly to changing customer needs.

Investing in those people, in education and training, and in continuing to develop our workforce, will be the basis of preparedness and agility needed for the future. People are the cornerstone to being ready for what might come up.

This is more than being prepared for waves of Covid-19, or even other pandemics. A year or so ago we wouldn’t have been talking to every single customer about adopting cloud – whether that’s public, private or a hybrid approach. Now we are. Our job is to drive the cost of those solutions down, and rethink how we deliver technologies. We are also now having to adapt to new requirements – like ensuring cyber security for remote workers.

As a leader, it is my job to listen and enable. It is my job to look after the emotional wellbeing of the people who will enable success in unpredictable times. We need people to focus on the next thing coming up and give them the head-room to intellectualise how our organisation works. They need to be able think about the future, not always thinking about delivering in the present.

Open-mindedness and real investment in your own team with the right mindset to go in any direction should be central for any leader in our space.

Richard Strong, vice president and managing director, EMEA, at Allscripts, and member of the techUK health and care council

Following a year that saw widespread remote working, virtual consultations and the reconfiguration of electronic records, healthcare organisations may wish to assess what new directions they can take in 2021. The NHS will need to navigate the rest of winter and then reset once the vaccination programme is further down the line to completion.

At the same time, IT teams will need to assess the impact of new solutions and work out how to embed them into ‘usual’ business practices. There will need to be integration with the EPR because, at the moment, some of those virtual consultations are not showing up in the historical record.

In the second half of the year, I expect to see more innovation, driven by the arrival of integrated care systems (ICSs). They will need to redefine patient pathways, and some elements of those pathways will be virtual. That will require open systems and open standards so all the different elements can work together and generate data for predictive analytics.

That’s when our Covid-19 relationships will be beneficial. In 2020, we picked up the phone and spoke to people we might never have spoken to before because our clients wanted us to work together, and I hope that that spirit will be retained in 2021.

Paul Bensley, managing director, X-on

As we progress through 2021, a key focus in supporting delivery of primary care will be providing GPs with the tools needed to contact their patients as efficiently and quickly as possible – developing an ‘omnichannel’ approach so that communication with patients is through voice, text, online and video.

With general practice undergoing significant change in the past year, new structural and technological issues have emerged that will need to be addressed. For instance, further call management technology is a priority to help resolve the level of failed contact attempts by GPs, resulting in calls going to voicemail or being unanswered, or video calls failing during setup.

Practice telephone costs compared with video costs, for example, will become a focus and the wide variation between practices depending on individual contracts and the level of support from their clinical commissioning group. With outbound calls from practices likely to remain comparatively high, telco providers should be looked at to remove or minimise call costs.

Technology will continue to influence general practice and bring efficiencies in the way it is delivered day-to-day, both irrespective of the pandemic, for instance integrating the recording of a triage session with the practice’s clinical system, and also as a direct result of it.

Primary Care Networks (PCNs) may face challenges with the roll-out of the vaccination programme, but there will be opportunities through unified technology to share resources and reduce the overall costs incurred by hubs.

Communication with patients has been an area where silos have built up and data sharing or interoperability have been a challenge. Now cloud and contact centre technology, integrated with secure data technologies, gives PCNs the chance to operate at a necessary larger scale, yet still maintaining the local presence that makes primary care patient centric.

Technology will also play a crucial role in facilitating contactless arrivals – an essential risk management feature within vaccination hubs, but also within GPs and hospitals.

Ultimately, throughout the pandemic and beyond, it is the patient, their care and preservation of the doctor-patient relationship that should be the prime concern as technology continues to develop within primary care.

Richard Craven, chief executive of CliniSys

The impact of Covid-19 has been profound and we’re going to be feeling its effects for many years into the future. The three changes that I think will have most resonance are: remote working, the new awareness of the importance of data, and a shift in consumer expectations.

Remote working has worked exceptionally well for CliniSys as a company, and it has enhanced our relationship with our customers. A year ago, I don’t think our delivery team or our customers would have believed that we could execute a remote go-live with our laboratory information system, WinPath Enterprise; but we have created a methodology and toolset to do it, and it works.

On data, the emerging theme is computational pathology which means that, as diagnostic data becomes fully digitised, smart use is made of it to help our customers run their labs and clinicians at the workbench make better, more informed decisions. We also need to join up wet-lab data with other sources, like the information coming out of our new genomics LIMS, GLIMS Genomics, as well as other observed data from electronic medical records.

Finally, we expect to see more ‘Amazonification’ of healthcare. People lived their lives online in 2020, and this year, they’re going to expect to interact digitally with healthcare services, order their own tests and get their own results; and the impact of that is going to be fascinating.

Gary Birks, managing director, UK and Ireland, Orion Health

We are going to continue to feel the effects of 2020 throughout 2021. We had requests for thousands of new licenses as shared care records proved their value in supporting reactive care. Our long-established customers moved to proactive and predictive care as they became the primary record for new services and embedded Covid-19 risk calculators into their portals.

The value of these developments was recognised by NHS England and NHS Improvement at the end of the first wave. Guidance was issued asking the NHS to complete the roll-out of integrated care systems and to get basic shared care records in place by September 2021, so we can safely predict that we will be doing some exciting work this year.

In addition, I would like to see technology improve patient access to services. I believe this will drastically improve the way we deliver consultations in the future. The demographic who were unlikely to use technology to shop and keep in touch with family and friends before the pandemic are now using it proficiently. Covid-19 has accelerated change and set the scene for technology to drive patient care.

David Newell, managing partner, Gemserv Health

Covid-19 will inevitably continue to dominate the agenda in the healthcare sector in 2021, but acceleration of digital transformation, faster development of drugs and a growing focus on reducing carbon footprint ahead of COP26 will also be key issues.

Digital transformation has seen tasks expected to take months or even years being completed in a matter of days and weeks. Greater use of digital infrastructure, such for as remote GP consultations, will gather even further pace during 2021. But security and information governance need to be addressed around technology that was rapidly deployed and skipped some of the normal rules during the emergency. Ensuring that patients’ data is secure will be a key factor as further services are rolled out.

One of the few positives during the past year has been the speed with which vaccine candidates have been developed and put into clinical trials. Companies, universities, and regulators have worked together like never before. The challenge for 2021 is to maintain that momentum to develop vaccines and treatments for many other diseases.

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow will increase the focus on efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the health service. The acceleration of digital transformation will play an important role in this, with 30% cut to face-to-face GP appointments alone estimated to save 300 million journeys each year. As well as the climate benefits, reducing emissions will have a positive effect on people’s health too.

Dealing with the logistical challenges posed by the need to vaccinate tens of millions of people, on top of treating Covid-19 patients will take up a huge amount of health and care resources. The health service also needs to tackle the backlog of scans, diagnoses, appointments, and operations that have been building up over the past year.

While vaccine progress means there is light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, the new virulent strains have highlighted how long that tunnel could be. Rules around bubbles, social distancing and face coverings will be around for some time to come.

In an inter-connected world, we also need to look at the global perspective. Studies have shown just how quickly new strains of the virus were brought into the UK after people started returning from their brief summer respite.

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