Beyond social distancing: how virtual health enables healthcare system sustainability 

There’s a vital story emerging in the wake of COVID-19. Our Accenture 2020 Digital Health Patient Survey reveals a story about long-term population health rather than just reactive care, about digital readiness and the pragmatic use of available technology to solve problems in a crisis. It’s also a story about the crucial need for smooth, trust-inducing people engagement. 

COVID-19 has forced the healthcare industry to take a step back, ask what holistic population health really means and realise that you don’t have to wait for people to be sick before leveraging digital technology to better manage health—especially those increasingly complex lifestyle diseases. The pandemic also made healthcare’s limited ability to respond on a large scale painfully obvious. Our health systems are not designed to handle pandemics—they’re built around patient care, not community care. 

Nevertheless, the crisis has also revealed what’s possible if minds are willing and available technology is effectively deployed. Future digital health excellence should not be made the enemy of current digital health good. 

The art of the possible 

Like many others, I’ve watched with interest the robust discussion that COVID-19 has sparked on these three facets of the story—population health, digital readiness and people engagement. The pandemic has forced nothing less than a mindset shift among both administrators and patients who may not previously have been ready for drastic change. Administrators needed a fast, simple and agile way to execute pandemic-related healthcare solutions while continuing to deliver existing care. Patients, of course, needed access to both of those throughout. 

The Survey revealed that before COVID-19 just 12 percent of patients in England had received healthcare virtually, but 60 percent, regardless of age, would willingly switch to virtual healthcare if it were more convenient, accessible and could meet their care needs. In fact, in before the pandemic, our research indicated that 45 percent of both Baby Boomers and over-75s were willing to receive virtual healthcare from traditional providers—more, even, than the 42 percent of Gen Z who said the same. So any concerns about an aging population’s “unwillingness” to adopt virtual health were probably misplaced. 

As we discovered in re-examining our Survey in the light of COVID-19, patients have avoided in-person consultations during the pandemic—and the resulting move to virtual has been vast. By mid-April 2020, GPs were conducting only 7-8 percent of consultations in person, as opposed to 80 percent in 2019.1 Since COVID-19 there has been a surge in NHS App downloads. The app gives online access to GP appointments and electronic prescriptions. Previously under-used virtual services like video consultations are also more popular than ever.2

The net result has been to move virtual health away from slow, incremental progress—providers have discovered the art of the possible, while patients have developed far greater acceptance of virtual care channels. Together, rapid technology-based delivery and greater acceptance among patients have been indispensable in reducing the care demand/supply gap in England and maintain a functional healthcare system during the crisis. 

Digital health’s core of simplicity 

A possibly unexpected benefit has been the realisation that, even beyond COVID-19, the NHS needs to be more holistic about the care channels it uses. Reducing the healthcare demand/supply gap is not a new challenge and the increase in backlog has only compounded the situation, so remote care is now a question of sustainability, not just social distancing. 

However, it’s vital to keep things simple, ensure success and build trust before implementing some of the more advanced aspects of digital health. For example, when talking about human plus machine healthcare, patients tend to assume that doctors and AI machines will be co-diagnosing or performing joint surgical procedures. This has a serious impact on potential adoption. A combination of human and AI care causes trust to plummet among English patients—from 79 percent (for physicians alone) to 46 percent (for physicians supported by AI). 

While hybrid human/AI care might form part of a future scenario, there is significant scope for simpler applications to address more everyday challenges such as improved supply chain performance to deploy critical resources closer to needs, or improved insights & diagnostics for health professionals at the point of care. Our survey revealed that simpler clinical functions are also an option: the popularity of previously under-used digital services including online triage and video consultations has soared. The key is to take step changes that generate momentum while keeping transparency and building trust right in the heart of new propositions. 

Virtual health must be a simple-yet-holistic combination of population health, digital readiness and people engagement. COVID-19 has not only made providers realise what is possible but has given them the tools to do so in an agile manner, using industry standard platforms, proven solutions and sticking to the basics. These tools can make sustainable population health management simultaneously cost-effective, accessible and tailored to the individual. I remain optimistic that the shift in the adoption of digital health is here to stay. Next time, we’ll dig more deeply into how a solid foundation of data enables both operational and clinical insights and improvements in the form of applied intelligence, to build trust and make healthcare more accessible and sustainable. 

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Feel free to reach out—I’d be happy to discuss any of them with you. 

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1 BBC News, "Coronavirus: How GPs have stopped seeing most patients in person", April 11, 2020,

2 NHS News, GP video appointments help thousands of patients living in the South West, May 28, 2020,

Ashish Goel

Accenture UK Health Lead

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