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A medical doctor is examining a hospital patient's file which has a printed label on the healthcare document he is holding

Digitisation during COVID-19: how healthcare technology developed during the pandemic 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in virtual medical consultations and remote treatment which has led to the rapid acceleration of digital solutions.

 

This digital response has been heavily led by primary healthcare, as many secondary healthcare providers prioritised a focus on treating COVID-19 patients.

As such, the default for secondary healthcare remains as face-to-face consultations and in-person follow ups. However, in many cases, there is probably no need to visit a hospital just to have a conversation with someone. But the secondary healthcare sector is not ready for digitisation quite yet. Nearly 30% of secondary care doctors stated that their organisations are ‘not at all’ or ‘only a little’ prepared for the adoption of digital technologies1.  

 

Leading from the frontline

For many people, primary healthcare remained the first point of contact during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. To deal with the rise in demand and to minimise contact, they introduced telephone, email and virtual consulting. While this enabled continuity of care, it also ensured those who did need in-person appointments were able to get them.

During this time, there were widespread – and legitimate – concerns about potential damage to the health of those whose routine care had to be postponed or abandoned. Of particular concern was the need to manage the aftermath of the pandemic while also dealing with the potential explosion in the need for mental health support caused by it.
This is where secondary healthcare services can learn valuable lessons from the primary healthcare experience, and drive their own shift to new digital ways of working.

 

A changing landscape

  While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted healthcare and caused radical shifts in delivery models, it has also accelerated the pace of digitalisation by at least a decade. This digital transformation will be pivotal in shaping the future of healthcare..

Deloitte: digital transformation - shaping the future of European healthcare

 

Across Europe an increasing number of people are now using digital technologies to access medical information and manage their health. This includes searching for health information online, booking appointments, attending virtual health consultations and using digital technologies to manage their health remotely1.

Transformations like this are seismic, saving healthcare workers and patients significant amounts of time.

Alongside many other sectors, healthcare has seen a switch towards remote working. However, healthcare faces unique challenges when it comes to sharing highly sensitive information such as patient records.

Sharing physical records is costly and time consuming. It also creates issues around confidentiality and staff monitoring. This is where secure digital technology comes into its own.

And it isn’t just patient care that can benefit from this technological shift. Staff training and onboarding can be done remotely, protecting resources and reducing the need for travel.

 

We have the technology…

Healthcare technology to do all of this digitally already exists. What’s more, it can be easily integrated into current workflows so that it does not require additional resource or significant new staff investments. The onus now is on decision makers to update their IT strategies and invest in new frameworks that are fit for the future of healthcare provision.

As a core tenet of healthcare, patient confidentiality is paramount in the switch to digital. IT departments will already be well aware of the security measures that need to be implemented. Many, if not all, modern devices like printers and scanners will have built-in security features such as pull printing, encryption and user authentication. The key will be providing training so that all staff members understand digitisation so they can shift their thinking and habits away from the ‘traditional’ way of doing things.

A female doctor wearing blue hospital scrubs is standing in front of a medical centre's back office containing a computer and Brother labelling printer in this healthcare scene

 

So, what can secondary healthcare learn from this?

The ability of primary healthcare to react and adapt to the changing and challenging times has been impressive. Despite being the first port of call during the crisis, it has managed to implement widespread advances in systems and staff behaviour. There is now a chance for those in secondary healthcare to learn from this and implement changes of their own, with the following in mind:

-    Everyone needs to be on board

As many IT departments will know, there can be a wide range of computer literacy amongst secondary healthcare staff. While most will know their way around a computer, some will not have experience with videoconferencing software, or may lack the confidence to show colleagues and patients how to use it.

Rapid, wholesale change can be overwhelming. A thorough training programme is needed to get everyone up to speed on the digitisation process. This is especially true when it comes to security, as those used to handling paper documents securely will need to understand digital security measures too.

-    Finding the right balance

While online consultations are popular with some patients, they are not for every patient, especially the elderly, vulnerable or those living in rural areas. 29% of Europeans lack basic digital skills, increasing the risk of digital exclusion - and 80 million Europeans never use the internet because they don’t have a computer or it is too expensive1.

We appreciate that there are some secondary healthcare situations where consultations or treatment simply have to be done face-to-face. Students and trainees too, may need a more hands-on approach than can be offered via online learning. With that in mind, a hybrid approach, where those who require direct interaction can access it as easily as online services, provides a good way forward.

-    Working together works better

One key thing to learn from the primary healthcare response is the beneficial impact of collaboration. This seems obvious, but the healthcare sector hasn’t always been the best at sharing knowledge and data between different teams.

As long as it is done securely (and with patients’ consent), sharing data can help organisations plan their response to difficult situations like COVID-19. The new methods of online interaction can also open up new lines of communication. For instance, in the future, you could find a patient, their GP and a clinical specialist together on the same video call.

 

Conclusion: a chance to shape the future of secondary healthcare

A lot of change has happened in a short time, and it’s fair to say that technology has been a key driver in this. Some changes may only be temporary: short-term workarounds that have allowed staff to continue functioning in difficult circumstances. Some, though, could be here to stay. There is now a chance to study what we have learned from this crisis and shape how the healthcare industry responds to any future challenges. With the right technology in place, and the right partners on hand to implement it, this move to digitisation can help deliver long-term positive outcomes for staff and patients across the healthcare sector.

Find out more about Brother's healthcare technology solutions here.
 
1 https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/nl/Documents/public-sector/deloitte-nl-shaping-the-future-of-european-healthcare.pdf

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