Long before COVID-19 was on the WHO’s radar, health systems around the world were struggling to cope with increased patient demand. In the UK, waiting times for both A&E and GPs were the worst on record.
Then came the pandemic – and the situation deteriorated. There is now a hidden backlog of 15 million people awaiting NHS treatment, while the primary care sector faces a ‘tsunami’ of legal challenges over patient care pushed to one side because of the ongoing crisis.
Tackling this situation will require a monumental effort, but a drive towards patient-centric tech innovation and patient autonomy could ease the pressure. The problem with getting patients to embrace tech is that it requires buy-in – and that isn’t easy to achieve. However, COVID-19 has forced people to become more tech-literate, and this could be the catalyst needed to drive changes in user behaviour.
A recent webinar with experts operating at the nexus between tech and healthcare explored precisely this point. Here are the key emerging trends our insiders believe have the greatest potential to support overloaded healthcare regimes.
- Pharma meets GAFA to deliver patient power: Pharma’s reputation has never been higher thanks to its vaccine successes, and big tech has been thriving during the pandemic: there is no reason why the two can’t combine. Amazon’s new online delivery service,Amazon Pharmacy, is a good example, allowing consumers to secure affordable medication more quickly than traditional health channels. Of course, this raises the prospect of abuse. But safeguards such as voice and chatbots could advise users what medication fits their requirements, while personalised data could limit what users are permitted to buy. Still in the world of big tech, Facebook’s Preventative Health platform can send check up reminders and suggests nearby locations for flu jabs, cancer screenings and blood pressure tests. This is achieved using minimal data (gender/age), but imagine the power of social if it had greater access to an individual’s medical history.
- Conversational interfaces to free up human agents: A lot of pressure can be taken off the healthcare system by using voice and chatbots to reduce the reliance on frontline human agents – so freeing up an overburdened workforce to channel their resources in the most critical areas.Voice has clearly come of age as a result of the shift towards social distancing/touch-free interactions. In healthcare, Amazon Alexa users can now turn to the voice assistant to help diagnose COVID-19 – using information provided by public health bodies. Diagnosis, prevention, checking adherence to medication and triage are all part of what voice can offer, too. Indeed, voice tech can go beyond what a person says, extracting medical insights from how they sound through the use of digital biomarkers. AI assistants can also curtail the spread of disinformation. The Estonian government, for example, has been using a chatbot called Suve to answer questions about COVID-19 with trusted information. Kiosks (and similar interfaces) fall within this category, allowing simple self-management of parts of the journey – for example booking in at A&E or organising repeat prescriptions.
- Aggregated healthcare provider portals to advise, not decide: People needing health advice or support tend to think automatically of their GP or their nearest A&E. But this simply piles up the pressure on these overstretched services when other advisors might be able to share the load. The solution is digital portals where public and private providers such as GPs, dentists, opticians, fitness experts, dieticians and other forms of specialist are all accessible as the first point of contact. This model reduces the burden on healthcare decision-makers by providing an ecosystem of consultants and guides. Maximising the potential of this model, healthcare could mimic the banking sector by moving towards Open Healthcare through APIs. This would enable healthcare professionals to share individual data with trusted third parties – so that the perfectly-tailored solution can be found. For example, medical data about a particular food intolerance could be fed into an individual’s digital dietary plan. Or COPD sufferers could be advised they are entering a high pollution area through location data. Clearly, trust, privacy and compliance safeguards need to be in place for this model to work – for example, who has the right to speak on important topics such as vaccines.
- Behavioural mapping and wearables to make self-service more inclusive: Behavioural mapping is all about observing and recording patients’ routines in a particular setting at a particular time. Some healthcare authorities are already using this approach as the basis of experience design. The benefit is that unlike a purely persona-focussed design approach, it avoids pigeon-holing people and provides solutions that are better fit for purpose. Wearables, potentially, could provide a quantum leap in behaviour-based experience design because of the real world data they provide. This is just one application of wearable tech that could reduce the pressure on the system. Devices like Ava (ovulation tracking),TempTraq (wearable temperature monitoring) andSmartSleep (sleep analyser) are all examples of easy to use, inclusive wearables which empower people to take control of their health challenges
- Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to schedule appointments: RPA is about streamlining functions behind the scenes. By reducing the time required by humans to address repetitive tasks, it frees up resources to spend on more impactful areas such as personal contact with patients. Aside from introducing efficiencies, and increasing the reach of the current HCP team, it also has the capacity to reduce human errors. Coupled with the application of data science, RPA has the potential to impact a range of areas within healthcare, including more accurate patient diagnosis, scheduling new appointments and monitoring/testing regulatory compliance to ensure a better patient experience all round.
Data privacy aside, the risk with a tech-powered healthcare model is that it could be interpreted as a system that doesn’t care. To be truly patient-centric, it is crucial that digital solutions prioritise buy-in from end users. This means delivering experience design that prevents people feeling isolated or ignored. Patient autonomy is an important objective for healthcare providers, but users should always feel that systems are intuitive, supportive and there is a human option available if necessary. Whatever tech innovation is introduced into the healthcare ecosystem, the customer should be at the heart of it.
Andrew Dunbar is EMEA general manager of digital consultancy Appnovation