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What Will the Healthcare Industry Look Like Post COVID-19?
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare organizations of all kinds to take immediate and sometimes radical steps to deliver quality services and care under uniquely challenging circumstances. From research and development to frontline patient care, the healthcare industry has met these challenges by modifying existing models and accelerating the adoption of innovative digital technologies including AI powered apps, advanced robotics, and data management in the cloud.
These tools are part of a larger digital transformation in the world of healthcare and life sciences – a revolution in which innovative digital technologies have the potential to redefine how new therapies are developed and care is provided across the entire spectrum of healthcare services. This paradigm shift was already underway, but the immediate demands of the pandemic have accelerated the healthcare industry’s transformation into a fully digital ecosystem.
Pressed to deliver essential services quickly and safely, and to boost the rapid development of treatments and vaccines, the world of healthcare and life sciences in general has been forced to speed up its journey toward a new digitally driven world. This is an environment in which technologies based on artificial intelligence, robotics and cloud based big data management will streamline processes and improve quality. Applications of those technologies are helping healthcare organizations solve the challenges of the pandemic, and they’re likely to play a major role in defining the way healthcare is delivered in a post-pandemic world.
New Challenges Require New Solutions
Coping with the sudden and critical challenges posed by the pandemic has required healthcare organizations to modify or outright abandon a number of their usual procedures and protocols. These changes will affect just about every aspect of the healthcare industry, and the worlds of drug research, long term and eldercare, and direct patient care can illustrate how the impact of the novel coronavirus will shape healthcare for the future.
Because of the pandemic, biopharma companies have had to accelerate the development and testing of new treatments and vaccines far beyond the typical time frame. Long-term care facilities and other eldercare services have had to limit or completely ban visitors, intensify staff training, and implement severe restrictions on events, gatherings and even person-to-person contact.
Front-line medical staff need immediate access to essential information and strategies to safely care for patients while limiting in-person contact. Hospitals, clinics and other patient-facing organizations have also had to implement new safety measures such as restricting visitors, instituting new sanitation protocols, and finding ways to provide care while limiting visits.
As the pandemic subsides, some of these measures may no longer be necessary. But some will remain, at least in a modified form. Eldercare services will still need to observe special care with vulnerable populations, which could include continued restrictions on visits and close contact. Staff training on sanitation, Personal Protective Equipment and other virus-inspired issues can still be useful as a general strategy to keep staff and patients from exposure to illnesses of all kinds. Some level of social distancing and personal protection could also become the norm in healthcare settings of all kinds.
In the current crisis, healthcare professionals are realizing that the new technologies they adopted to help cope with immediate issues are capable of having a lasting impact on the delivery of products and services across the industry. These tools and technologies will become an essential part of the post COVID-19 healthcare landscape as organizations find ways to implement them in a broader setting. In that way, the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be the gateway to the next phase of healthcare’s much anticipated digital revolution.
COVID-19 and the Digital Revolution in Healthcare
Digital technologies have become an integral part of everyday life, so commonplace that they’re taken for granted. The constant communication among “things” like phones, virtual assistants and other kinds of devices has created the foundations of a new, digitally driven world known as the “Internet of Things,” in which devices can constantly access and share data with the help of cloud based platforms.
In this digital revolution, businesses of all kinds have been swift to embrace tools that make it easier to connect with customers and provide products and services from anywhere, at any time. But healthcare and life sciences organizations have lagged behind other industries in embracing the “Internet of Medical Things” – fully developed digital ecosystems that streamline processes and improve care. That all changed with the advent of the novel coronavirus in the early months of 2020.
Digital Tools Shape the Future of Healthcare
Over the past decade, the use of “smart” technologies in healthcare has been gradually expanding. AI-powered platforms can provide advanced diagnostics and ensure the accuracy of surgical procedures. Large cloud based data sets provide essential insights for drug research and development, and make patient records readily available at any time. And even before the advent of COVID-19, telemedicine portals and wearable fitness tech were making it easier to monitor health conditions and keep patients connected with their doctors. In a post-pandemic world, expect to see expanded use of these and other technologies for delivering healthcare products and services in a faster and more efficient way.
Digital Tools Will Fast-Track Medical Research
Before the pandemic, only 14 percent of all drugs in US clinical trials went on to receive FDA approval, a process that could take a decade or more. The process of bringing a new medication or therapy to market requires a multitude of highly regulated steps, including recruiting and managing participants in clinical trials. But a new model was beginning to disrupt those traditional structures: AI powered research modeling and virtual clinical trials, which eliminate many of the roadblocks to the fast and safe delivery of essential medicines.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, researchers had to work quickly to understand the disease, discover potential treatments and ultimately find a vaccine. With cloud-based data management, they could access the insights from a global storehouse of information. AI-driven modeling tools allowed them to speed up testing and analysis, and virtual trials using patient portals and other telemedicine tools made it possible to track study participants at any time, from anywhere.
The pandemic demonstrated the potential of these tools to accelerate research and development for faster availability of essential medicines and treatments in a post COVID-19 world. Going forward, technologies for managing and sharing data and working remotely with clinical trial participants could become core components of a new process for bringing vital therapies to market faster than ever before.
Digital Innovations Will Improve Senior and Residential Care
Since the pandemic began, health experts have warned that those over 65 are at greater risk for serious complications and even death from COVID-19. Especially in the early days of the crisis, nursing homes and other types of assisted living facilities were among the hardest hit, forcing staff to rethink policies and procedures for everything from providing direct care to helping residents stay in contact with loved ones. That meant instituting new protocols for things like handling visits and training staff, and turning to an array of digital tools for communicating and managing various aspects of patient care.
COVID-19 revealed that facilities had to improve staff training to reduce potential spread of the disease, and to institute strict policies about visitors and keeping common areas clean and sanitized. Digital tools and apps for video calls, messages and photo sharing could keep residents and their families connected without visits, and wearable devices could help monitor health conditions and warn of falls and accidents.
Because of the severity of COVID-19 in nursing homes and other assisted living facilities, more seniors and their families are likely to opt for “aging in place” with the help of part-time caregivers and other services. Telemedicine portals and other kinds of communication apps can help families stay in touch and keep seniors living as independently as possible.
In a post-COVID-19 world, many of these digital innovations will carry over into the post-virus world of residential and elder care, such as home health and rehab services. Increased availability of wearable tech and telemedicine portals can allow healthcare providers to track seniors’ medical conditions from home, reducing the need for in-person appointments. Robotic devices and “companions” can make sure medications are taken properly, or monitor changes in movement or activity that could signal a new concern.
Easy to use and relatively inexpensive wearable devices are now available for monitoring a range of personalized metrics such as blood pressure, and glucose or oxygen levels. These devices can help doctors keep tabs on patient conditions remotely, remind users to take medications and get help quickly in case of falls or accidents.
Along with these innovations, some form of social distancing will likely remain in place to protect vulnerable people not only from the virus but also from more commonplace illnesses like colds and the flu. In general, limiting social contact and wider use of digital communications will become a standard in senior and residential care. For healthcare professionals in geriatrics and eldercare, the lessons learned from the highly contagious COVID-19 can be applied to keep vulnerable populations at home and in residential facilities safe from potentially risky exposure.
Clinical Care Will Become Patient-Centered
From hospital stays to routine clinic visits, COVID-19 has affected every aspect of patient care. As wards fill with COVID-19 patients, hospitals have put a number of new protocols in place to protect both front line health care workers and patients. As in care facilities, these include careful use of space, limiting visitors and people accompanying patients, and more widespread use of personal protective equipment. Along with all these new strategies, these organizations have also implemented digital tools and platforms for providing care whenever possible.
Applications of these technologies include “virtual rounds” in hospitals, where doctors review patient progress and consult with other professionals via video platforms and calling apps. AI driven technologies are also being used to handle routine appointments and connect people with healthcare providers whenever a concern arises. Automated processes are streamlining office services, so that billing, appointments, and other routine tasks can be handled with limited person to person contact.
Some of these technologies were already in place, as healthcare entities become aware of the benefits of digital tools like telemedicine portals, AI-powered robotics for managing an array of tasks such as 24/7 patient monitoring and medication management, and cloud based electronic health records that follow patients throughout their entire journey through the healthcare system. But the pandemic created conditions that emphasized the value of these and other digital technologies for improving access to care, increasing patient comfort, and streamlining billing and other kinds of data management.
The New Normal
In a healthcare landscape reshaped by the pandemic, these digital tools and platforms will play an increasingly prominent role. Some argue that digital technologies will replace “hands-on” healthcare and established protocols, but these tools work best under a model known as “humans in the loop,” where AI and machine learning support, rather than replace, the best endeavors of humans. For example, a robotic surgical tool still needs the guidance of experienced surgeons. A telemedicine bot can screen for symptoms, but a patient still receives treatment from a doctor. These technologies can operate alongside “real world” measures for more efficient research and better patient care.
For the healthcare industry, the world after COVID-19 will look very different than it did before the pandemic struck. But as curves flatten and the pandemic winds down, healthcare systems will settle into a new normal that blends features of the pre-COVID-19 world and the lessons learned from coping with the pandemic itself.
Some of the strategies born out of the immediate need to manage the pandemic have proved to be smarter and more effective than previous models. And the innovative digital technologies that have been quietly making inroads into established practices will become essential features of a new paradigm shaped by COVID-19. From fast-tracking new drugs to providing new ways for patients to take charge of their care, healthcare’s digital transformation will be the new normal in a post-pandemic world.