COVID-19 has accelerated the implementation of technology in the healthcare sector. The ongoing necessity of remote healthcare has seen a surge in areas such as artificial intelligence, remote monitoring and telehealth, with the NHS having recently reported substantial increases in the use of its digital services throughout 2020.
The NHS website, which usually attracts 360 million visits a year, estimated approximately 803 million visits in 2020.
NHS Pathways was responsible for triaging 1.5 million calls to 111 and 999 in 2020 as of November, a 2.5 per cent increase on 2019.
Additionally, NHS 111 Online recorded 3.5 million sessions in the six months from June to November 2020, a 257 per cent jump from 999,150 sessions in the same period of 2019.
Ben Davison, NHS Digital’s executive director for product development, said that he expects the “numbers using NHS tech to continue rising in 2021 as the general public continues to play a key role in helping to ease the burden on our fantastic frontline services”.
Experts in the field of healthcare technology also expect that the acceleration will continue, with this inevitable change only being fast-forwarded, and more emphasis being placed on patient choice.
HT World spoke to several figures in the fields where exponential growth has been predicted, who also acknowledged the concerns and issues that may need to be addressed.
"This is the advent of intelligent automation in healthcare" - the ongoing evolution of AI tech
John Gikopoulos is the global head for artificial intelligence and automation at Infosys Consulting.
He has previously worked alongside Fortune 500 and FTSE 300 C-level execs to test, strategise and understand how AI might work best for their organisation.
In his two decades in the industry, he has led IPSoft’s Cognitive Intelligence Unit, growing a 100-employee team in just three years, and consulted at McKinsey. Gikopoulos outlined his expectations for AI’s future in healthcare.
“A key way in which new technologies are benefitting clinicians is through Intelligent Process Automation (IPA), which combines Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and machine learning. Through data science applications, simple tasks that were once very sequential in nature are now much more intelligent.
“This is the advent of intelligent automation in healthcare: freeing up doctors and nurses from manually entering details to instead spend their time working with vulnerable patients on the ground and saving precious time and resources in a time when the NHS is more stretched than ever.”
He added: “The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the healthcare sector to become more agile than ever.
“However, what people see day-to-day as AI in healthcare isn’t even the tip of the iceberg – it’s a whiff of smoke coming off it. In reality, the use of AI and automation is already much more widespread and accessible and is being used by doctors and nurses on a daily basis. From diagnostics to automating the back office, AI is transforming healthcare for the better.
“The trajectory of AI adoption isn’t straightforward – there’s still widespread hesitation to try new things. When we think of AI in the enterprise, the risk-takers are often ambitious start-ups, companies undergoing major restructures, or companies in distress, desperate for solutions.
“However, supposed legacy institutions like the NHS are far more advanced in adoption of AI compared to private pharmaceutical companies. The NHS wants to reduce costs where possible, especially after the economic pressure it has faced in 2020, and this necessitates some experimentation.
“Things are changing, and we’re edging towards real innovation. The public may not notice the strides taken in diagnostics and back office activities, and these changes may even fly under the radar of doctors and nurses.
“Nevertheless, all involved are benefitting. These technologies have significant potential, and we are yet to witness their full, wide-spread impact.”
Remote monitoring - how healthcare perceptions are changing rapidly
Remote monitoring platforms experienced a stark growth in prevalence during 2020 as the outbreak of COVID-19 ensured that reducing the number of hospital visits became increasingly important.
Daan Dohmen is the founder of Dutch-developed home healthcare monitoring app Luscii.
The platform allows clinicians to guid patients at home from the hospital. Patients take their own measurements, answer questions about their wellbeing and receive educational material.
Additionally, if there is an abnormal measurement, the artificial intelligence in Luscii’s Clinical Engine provides an instant alert and enables direct contact with a clinician via chat or video connection.
Dohmen believes that the pandemic has changed medical professional’s attitudes towards the technology and hopes that it will continue to be embraced in 2021 and beyond.
“It really has changed the mindset from hospital and care professionals. Where we saw a year ago that there was some resistance, now a lot of healthcare professionals have experienced that for some of their healthcare, connections and context, it really is possible to have digital conversations via video communication and use virtual or remote monitoring.
“The most important thing that we can achieve in the upcoming years is that clinicians, doctors and nurses really start to embrace this technology and this whole new way of working. Not because we want to digitise all of their work but because we need them and their knowledge in order to create this future of healthcare for themselves and for the patients.”
Dr Henry Carleton, managing director of the NHS division at digital cancer care platform Careology, expects patient-initiated care to come the fore.
“I think that patient-initiated follow-up and initiated care is going to come to the fore in the near future and hospitals need to find capacity and they need to break the mould of the old way of delivering follow-up care.
“It’s not at the expense of a face-to-face consultation, you have to marry the two up to deliver good pathways.
“We need to create sustainable solutions because if we keep the current way of doing things, I worry that we don’t have the capacity to meet the need.
“My feeling is that this type of technology will be used in many of the other high volume, outpatient conditions.
“I think it’s definitely not there yet. But you can see how this type of blending of health tech with an equal practice on a pathway could really open doors to driving efficiency and keeping patients out of hospital. I think that’s where I’d like to believe it will head to in the next five years.”
The rise and rise of the virtual clinic
Visionable combines next-generation video conferencing with clinical imaging capabilities. Clinicians can monitor and consult with patients virtually, with all of the required records, scans, and pathology images at their fingertips.
At the start of the pandemic, the company saw a 1,600 per cent increase in the hours its platform was used between February and March. The firm also onboarded more than 16,000 NHS staff in just four weeks.
The company carried out two rounds of research that each surveyed approximately 1,500 people – one in February 2020 and a second carried out in May.
Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of people questioned in May agreed they did not always need to see a doctor in person to receive appropriate care, up from 62 per cent in February.
Additionally, the number of people questioned who had experienced some form of remote consultation rose from 51 per cent to 63 per cent.
Visionable’s CEO Alan Lowe also believes that patient choice will continue to be emphasised, with virtual visits to our doctors becoming more and more common.
He said: “We saw a huge increase in the need for virtual clinics, which is primarily outpatient clinics and hospitals, and virtual visits from the wards to a family member’s home. So, those were the two dramatic spikes we saw during COVID-19.
“Every digital interaction is a slightly limited version of a physical interaction, but as technologies are getting better and better, that gap is closing.
“I think what you'll see more is that your appointments are going to become patient choice. I think you'll see a slight movement back towards a certain criteria of people wanting to see doctors and GPS still, but I think you will end up with a virtual-plus policy in healthcare.”
He added: “I think some people are going to have to be brave with their technology. But I think the biggest challenge to innovation and the NHS is the transformation, skills and capabilities. We know that people are flat out right now dealing with COVID-19 in the NHS, but people are always flat out.
“So, you almost need a transformation team or a transformation supplement to implement not just a technology, but the process involved.
“Self-improvement has to be driven by the users with the best technology to get the best outcomes. In my opinion, if you want it to be sustainable and usable, it has to be led by the users.”
Holoxica’s 3D holographic system ‘Holo-medicine’ is designed to benefit patients by enhancing remote consultations, helping people understand their conditions and surgical procedures more clearly, as well as reducing the strain on the wider healthcare system.
It enables patients to be in the room with their doctor remotely, without the need for expensive headsets or artificial environments. Bottom of Form Clinicians can also review ailments in 3D and make accurate medical diagnoses quickly, while surgeons can also share pre-operative scans and anatomical visuals.
The technology combines components such as a depth camera and Looking Glass light field 3D display, as well as Holoxica’s proprietary software. This includes 3D Telepresence, a ‘Holoviewer’ to view anatomy models in 3D and Volumeviewer to view medical scans.
The company’s director Wendy Lamin expects this technology to become more common.
She said: “This software really is about informing, educating and empowering the patient so that there is an informed consent but also that you take a bit of the anxiety of the patients away.
“We really think that in the future people are going to have 3D screens everywhere they go. That is our mission, bring real 3D to life for average people, and who cannot wear these golden headsets.”
COVID-19 has shifted attention towards how organisations can work remotely and still provide the required level of care. Technology has been paramount in providing the tools needed to persevere through the crisis, while medtech's capabilities have expanded in every direction to meet demand for new solutions.
As we look over the horizon beyond the pandemic, healthcare technology's growth looks certain to accelerate in the coming years.
Global awareness of the need to innovate beyond our healthcare challenges has perhaps never been greater; prompting investors, researchers, entrepreneurs, clinicians and inventors to step up their activities and interest in the health tech sector.
This year looks certain to be another transformative period for medtech and life sciences and we look forward to updating you on the very latest developments along the way.
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