COVID-19: Only the start of a new era for tech in healthcare

Written by Dr Charles Alessi, Chief Clinical Officer at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS)

The COVID-19 epidemic is one of those once in a lifetime events which will be remembered for many a year. We are seeing a wholesale transformation of the health and care landscape globally, and this is also being reflected in the four countries in the UK.

The epidemic is challenging our health and care systems and inevitably putting them under great strain. Although as is becoming clearer, this is a disease which affects relatively few people, the people most affected are disproportionately amongst the older age groups and amongst the people with concomitant medical conditions. Given the ageing we are seeing in our societies, we are therefore witnessing an increased shortage of beds in hospitals and specifically of ventilated beds. 

Paradoxically these times are also times of great change as digital innovations, which some people felt was hitherto only something which was of interest to the enthusiast, is now becoming increasingly part of the mainstream. Yes, this is indeed the new normal. 

It would be inconceivable for us to consider going back to travel agents to book our flights and, similarly, the pre-COVID-19 days are going to become a way to manage health and care in the teens not the twenties and beyond.

Thus, this is a time where everything will happen faster – adoption will happen in a matter of weeks not years. An example is primary care, where telehealth and other modalities to enable consultations to take place have become the norm with really quite extraordinary speed. Also licensing and accreditation, which previously was at best a somewhat tortuous and at worst a never-ending process, will be speeded up. There will no doubt be some mistakes made, and also some wonderful new innovations adopted. Perhaps we will become more like the US in this Brexit era, where entrepreneurs are proud that they have had a history of failing and failing fast. Time will tell. 

'The 2020s to be remembered as the time everything changed'

What is happening now is largely what one would expect. There are a multitude of tech companies innovating around antigen testing, for example. It is only a matter of time before we see accurate point of care testing becoming a reality. Antibody testing will flow at some point. Opportunities exist, however, in all fields associated with the management of COVID-19, from innovations in PPE for staff, to applications to better track contact tracing and contacts of potentially infective people.

Within a care environment, as well as innovations in treatment and ventilators, including new devices to deliver assisted ventilation, it is very likely we will see the need to manage people in hospital environments with substantially less staff. You can ramp up and build field hospitals and purchase ventilators, but it is a little more difficult to purchase staff to manage them.

The greatest opportunity, however, is in the care of patients with non-communicable disease. This is the care which is being displaced by the COVID-19 patients. Normally, this takes up the majority of activity within our health system and now suddenly it is ripe for innovation and need will give rise to a multitude of new as yet unimagined opportunities around self-care in this new age of precision health and medicine.  

The biggest innovations will, I predict, come by the time the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 hits us. There will be myriad data points available to develop the insights, apply AI and get to the place where we can predict who to prioritise and who to allow to self-manage. This is only the start of the new era and the 2020s will be remembered as the time everything changed.

  • Leontina Postelnicu

    Leontina Postelnicu

    Programme Manager | Health and Social Care

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