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Five digital healthcare trends to watch out for

By Dr Anushka Patchava

Updated: 30/11/2021
Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Vitality, Dr Anushka Patchava, talks us through the main areas of innovation within digital health technology spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is no denying that we’ve seen years’ worth of healthcare innovation take place in a matter of months in recent times. In light of this period of immense transformation, here are five digital trends to keep an eye on as we emerge from the pandemic with a new perspective on what’s possible within modern medicine today.

1. Shifting models of care

There has been a rapid rise in virtual video consultations as result of the pandemic, with around half of activity being conducted remotely between March and July 20201, according to NHS Digital, and the number of Vitality GP consultations doubling2. There’s been an explosion of third-party technology providers offering online access to doctors, while health insurance providers will increasingly see rising demand for remote care pathways offering physiotherapy, through apps such as Ascenti, and mental health treatment through the services like Mindler.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic adding further pressure to healthcare systems, virtual healthcare provides an opportunity to improve access to healthcare professionals, minimising the spread of infection, whilst delivering timely care. We expect the adoption of digital technologies within healthcare to continue.”

- Dr Anushka Patchava, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Vitality

2. Digital diagnostics and at-home screening

Restrictions on movement during the pandemic in effect catalysed the deployment of innovations that were already happening within some of the market’s more advanced health insurance offerings. The inability for nurses to attend face-to-face screenings saw patients taking blood samples themselves using self-testing kits, while we’ve seen the emergence and adoption of new technologies for remote patient education, diagnosis and monitoring. “Furthermore, as healthcare services face significant pressure to protect cancer screening services from disruption and reduce the estimated 50,000 missing diagnoses3, individuals are being empowered to take control of their own health and healthcare journey with fast-track skin cancer screening through services such as Skin Analytics and easy-to-use ‘at home’ screening tests like Check4Cancer,” said Dr Patchava.

3. Remote monitoring for long-term conditions

During the pandemic, we’ve seen the trial of virtual COVID-19 wards that allow patients to be monitored remotely. Especially those with the virus but whose symptoms are not severe enough for admission to hospital or intensive therapy units (ITUs). Chronic conditions account for over 70% of total health and social care spend and 64% of hospital outpatients4. “Leveraging new models of care, including virtual wards - alongside remote patient monitoring and in-home connected devices - will help relieve the strain on hospital health systems and bed shortages, whilst providing healthcare practitioners with a more holistic picture of a person’s health,” said Dr Patchava. “Allowing the healthcare team to personalise interventions and drive lifestyle and behaviour changes, ultimately improving health outcomes for the patient in the comfort of their own home,” she added.

4. Mental health and wellbeing apps

The pandemic has also impacted the nation’s mental health and the way it is supported, with the ONS reporting in June 2020 that instances of depression had doubled compared to pre-COVID rates (to around one in five)5. “The availability of and demand for solutions that can support one mentally through these times are ever increasing”, added Dr. Patchava. According to ORCHA, the COVID-19 crisis helped drive 176% usage of apps dedicated to the management of depression, an 86% increase in apps dedicated to treatment for anxiety and a 328% increase in searched for apps related to sleep6. “For the population, having apps that help with sleep, teach mindfulness, guide you through meditation, provide peer-to-peer support networks and tele-therapy services is not only convenient, but can support the mental health and wellbeing needs of users who may be unable to access traditional healthcare services. Furthermore, with the arrival of digitally-enabled treatments, we can better support affected populations, improving mental health and wellbeing at scale.”

5. Wearables, virtual reality and the ‘internet of things’ (IOT)

With prevention and wellbeing in the spotlight like never before, smart technology is another area that will progressively be used to respond to the full spectrum of healthcare needs. “It’s likely we are going to see increasing penetration of smart phones and tablets being used to store patients records, alongside Apple Watches and wearables that track physical activity and help manage health conditions - as the ‘internet of things’ (IOT) continues to drive medical innovation,” Dr Patchava pointed out. It’s also possible that technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) may become more mainstream, and used to connect remote environments to leading healthcare systems, while increasing the potential for clinical knowledge sharing and training opportunities, she added. Watch this space.

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2. Vitality data – first four months of 2021 vs. the same period in 2020 GP consultations are up 75% and compared to 2019 they are up 104%
3. The number of fewer diagnosis of cancer in 2020 compared to a similar time frame the preceding year Macmillan Cancer report, 2020

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