What a year it has been. It goes without saying that COVID has impacted everyone, everywhere. And what’s more, the words ‘pandemic’ and ‘lockdown’ were rather depressingly crowned words of the year for 2020, by many dictionaries.

This time last year we couldn’t have predicted a global pandemic, but I’ve decided to (bravely) share my thoughts on where we will see growth in 2021 to drive innovation in the healthcare industry. The pandemic has thrown healthcare professionals and particularly those in the NHS, into the biggest upheaval it has ever faced. Whilst it isn’t over, there are still many learnings for the industry to take forward and improve operations. This won’t be the last pandemic, so it’s important to reflect and identify areas to help us continue our fight against COVID-19 and beyond.

Realising the virtual ward for a holistic view of patients

This year, opportunities will lie in the virtualisation of the healthcare environment to provide similar or even better patient support. Currently, clinicians do not have comprehensive views of patients. With a virtual ward, patients will be able to access the care they need from home, instead of the hospital, using digital technologies. The digitisation of services in a virtual space will help clinicians join up the dots using data around the multiple care relationships a patient has to manage. The integration of this data will help provide a holistic view of all of the patient’s carers, outside of the clinical environment.

With this, we’ll begin to see more recognition of personal care communities outside of the traditional hospital environment, consisting of full-time carers, doctors, but also close family members and friends of those who are ill. These communities will become more joined up with a virtual ward, where approved clinical care information is stored in one place.

The NHS is committed to the virtualisation of services and we’ve already seen this with ‘your hospital at home’, which continues to provide extra support to patients remotely to avoid hospital admissions, or shorten admission time. It’s clear that more mainstream use of a virtual ward will be one of the single biggest levers the NHS can pull to improve the supply of care and reduce demand – particularly in a post-COVID world. To catalyse the use of virtual wards, it’s up to technology partners and health tech businesses to work together with public services to share capabilities, challenges and opportunities. This includes piloting virtual wards in the next year.

'The doctor will video call you now'

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) technologies have allowed us to take more control of our own health, and has undoubtedly played a critical role in helping to curb COVID infections. It has fundamentally reduced footfall to our healthcare facilities, allowing resources to be focused on where it is needed most and ease pressure on our healthcare systems.

As demand for healthcare continues to grow in the coming year, to manage the backlog of elective surgeries cancelled due to the pandemic, routine check-ups and mental health referrals, we expect to  see an increased uptake in RPM such as apps, consultations over video calls etc. Remote consultations are here to stay, particularly for those suffering from chronic diseases that require routine check-ups as well as other vulnerable patient groups, including pregnant women and diabetics, who may not want to risk the journey into hospital.

As we fight coronavirus, we must look beyond the crisis and recognise the great potential of technologies for the future of healthcare. It’s important that remote monitoring solutions are embraced and implemented today. This will not only help the battle against COVID, but will also enhance existing care pathways to improve operational efficiency and ultimately help deliver improved patient care beyond any pandemic or healthcare crunch. RPM technologies form the foundation of a transformative change in medicine, helping to move from reactively managing acute diseases to proactively creating preventative models of care.

Providing proactive healthcare with data

With the rise in remote patient monitoring and the use of IoMT (Internet of Medical Things) healthcare organisations can access and analyse larger pools of anonymised patient data and real world evidence, to further our understanding of the patterns and underlying biology of various diseases. IoMT devices not only empower the wearer with more data about themselves to better understand their own health and take action where needed, but can also provide invaluable insight to clinicians. Of course, creating data-driven insights isn’t a new phenomenon to the healthcare space. But in 2021, we will begin to see increased sharing of data between health tech businesses, pharmaceuticals, and the NHS to help generate better patient outcomes, more efficient treatments and quicker more personalised drug discoveries.

This data will go beyond monitoring patterns in illness and symptoms to generating tangible outputs for clinicians with personalised treatments, and better management of theatre and resource utilisation in hospitals, for example. Using data in this way will efficiently identify areas that are currently preventing patients from moving down the care pathway to get the treatment they need.

We’ve made it through 2020 and it couldn’t have been done without the extraordinary service from clinicians, carers and health systems. There are undoubtedly surprises waiting for us in the year ahead, but it is these three areas of digital health, the digitisation of hospital services in a virtual space, use of remote patient monitoring technologies and use of IoMT, that will help us build a framework for anticipating, managing and treating diseases more efficiently in 2021 and beyond.

Alan Payne is chief information officer at Sensyne Health