Digital healthcare is not new, but before COVID-19, it was not the default. For most patients, a medical appointment still meant a face to face consultation in primary care and specialist care required a trip to a busy hospital clinic. Digital health service offerings were available. Some GPs offer virtual consultations, triage or out of hours care directly or through third party providers. The “digital front door,” however, often stops being digital before you even step into the hall. NHS Digital data shows that 80 percent of GP appointments were face to face before COVID-19. 

Now that physical distancing is a crucial part of the required rapid response to COVID-19, healthcare has changed. The pandemic has brought about new realities, uncertainties for both patients and providers that have significant implications for healthcare strategies going forward. The need to outmanoeuvre uncertainty and, among other things, maximise physical distancing, has moved telemedicine to the forefront. 

COVID-19 forced the issue  

The pandemic forced organisations to enable telecommuting and remote resources overnight. The complexity of healthcare provision presented unique challenges for this adjustment. Nevertheless, GPs in London report “ten years of change in one week”. Royal College of General Practitioners data suggests the current proportion of face to face consultations is just eight percent. A new Accenture report points out that healthcare needs “new interwoven digital and physical experiences, with increased expectations, for effective, trusted and reliable care at a distance.” Although there have been huge advances, we are not yet where we need to be. 

In some cases, patients are seeing their own GP through a virtual platform. If needed, they can be referred to secondary care and see a specialist by video consultation, and digital prescriptions and connected care solutions are available. Many patients are enjoying remote care in their home for the first time. The long waits, car parking frustrations and uncomfortable waiting room chairs have vanished. Overall there has been an “explosion in demand for health technology”. Unfortunately, this digital healthcare experience is not universal. NHS Digital has reported that half of GP consultations in April 2020 were telephonic. Patients avoided care settings and unfortunately eventually presented with much more advanced disease, leading to the highly unusual situation of the NHS launching a campaign to get patients to seek care. Eighty percent face to face consultations is too much, but we need to explore what is behind the switch to eight percent. 

We need to be open about the reality of current care deficits, and where we need to get to. Healthcare in the UK is delivered by hardworking people, motivated to use their skills to help in an incredibly complex environment. Being a patient can be terrifying, and make you feel vulnerable. Forty percent of patients reported that they “did not want to burden their GP” if their care needs were unrelated to COVID-19. The real-life version is much grittier than the TV shows. Healthcare professionals, patients and their circle of carers deserve better digital tools. Air pollution levels seem to be going back to pre-pandemic levels—we cannot go back to the pre pandemic approach to care.  

In my next blog, I’ll deal with some practical suggestions to help care providers identify, develop and retain those aspects of COVID-19 pandemic-driven technology innovation. In the meantime, please read our dedicated page for more on how to outmanoeuvre uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19, and feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to discuss anything I’ve said here. I always welcome feedback and ideas. 

Dr. Alice Kirby

Clinical Principal – Accenture, UK

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