How COVID-19 accelerated digital healthcare

ITU

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has been a terrible scourge, but it’s also stamped down on the accelerator for tech areas such as home broadband, collaboration services, cloud applications and services generally, along with remote working.

But what COVID did to the digital healthscape may have the most consequential of impacts.

Breaking logjams

The pandemic forced the adoption of digital technology and communications where often before there was only tinkering and not necessarily by the large national healthcare providers, like the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).

COVID may have broken that logjam as medical professionals had to adapt quickly, using telephone and online consultations, for instance, in place of patient walk-ins just to stay above water in the midst of the crisis.

As a result in the UK the proportion of doctor’s visits happening over the phone or video rose from around 13 per cent in late 2019 to 48 per cent at the peak of the pandemic in April-June 2020. US-based virtual consultation provider Teladoc saw total visits treble to 2.8 million between 2019 and 2020.

According to research by consulting firm STL, barriers to adoption of virtual consultations were lowered as pandemic pressure built and other barriers, such as insurers or governments not reimbursing or underpaying doctors for virtual appointments.

Organizational and culture barriers among both patients and providers also broke down and resulted in an acceleration across the broader digital health market, in areas such as remote patient monitoring and population-level analytics.

The introduction of apps in the UK in the guise of track & trace, was another wake-up call.

Significant opportunities for telcos

The COVID experience provided a crash course in the possibilities represented by IT building on steady progress already being made with digital health initiatives and systems pre-pandemic.

5 digital health application areas STL

5 digital healthcare application areas. Image source: STL Partners via TelecomTV

As a result, STL says many telcos “believe that healthcare is a vertical with significant opportunity, as demonstrated by operators’ such as TELUS and Telstra’s big investments into building health IT businesses, and smaller but ongoing efforts from many others.”

STL points out that digital healthcare has a whole range of things going for it, including:

Health care being a ‘consistently growing need’ in every country in the world.

The sector is big enough in nearly every country to provide a meaningful revenue boost for digital healthcare providers, it calculates.

The fact that health is always a national market means that telcos can get a look in because local knowledge and relationships are required to do well – qualities the global tech giants may not have.

Healthcare tends to be a slow old business, bound by rules and regulations – something that telcos are used to dealing with.

However, up to now, says STL, many telcos have avoided putting their full effort into healthcare transformation.

Why?

Having conducted many interviews on this matter, STL has come to the conclusion that it’s mostly “because [telcos] are not yet fully convinced that addressing the challenges associated with transforming healthcare – fragmented and complex systems, slow moving public processes, impact on human lives – will pay off. Are they capable of solving these challenges, and is the business opportunity big enough to justify the risk?” they ask themselves.

But now is the time to cast off the doubt, say the consultants.

Newfound clarity

Taking a cautious “wait and see” approach to developing a digital health business, launching a couple of trials or proofs-of-concept and seeing if they deliver value, or investing in a digital health start-up or two, may have been a viable approach for operators before the COVID pandemic hit, but with the acceleration in digital health adoption this is no longer the case.

Now that COVID has forced healthcare providers and patients to embrace new technologies, the proof points and business cases the industry has been demanding have become a lot clearer.

As a result, the digital health market is now four years ahead of where it was at the beginning of 2020, so operators seeking to build a business in healthcare should commit now while momentum and appetite for change is strong.

This article first appeared on TelecomTV. The original version can be found here.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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