There is no doubt that the pandemic will continue dominating the agenda for quite some time. However, while we of course need to focus on immediate measures, including finding a vaccine, we need to make sure that no one is left behind. Digital solutions can help address some of the current challenges effectively. Not surprisingly, the digitisation of health services has accelerated considerably over these past months – a trend that is bound to last.

Digital health as a key element to making the “new normal” work in health

Digital health has been a hot topic for quite some time, but the current crisis has accelerated the debate in a way that we could only dream about some months ago. As Europe has been forced to deal with a new virtual way of working, limited mobility and the cancellation of non-essential healthcare services, the coronavirus emergency has demanded novel solutions to providing care at a distance as well as sharing information and knowledge across borders and sectors. While these solutions are certainly building on recent progress in this area across Europe, including virtual consultations, e-prescriptions and electronic health records, the crisis forces us to upscale our efforts to find new ways of accessing healthcare services, during as well as after the pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis might be that long-waited catalyst needed to drive health digitisation

The coronavirus crisis has unmasked the fragility and unpreparedness of some parts of our healthcare systems, but it also actuated resilient and adaptive coping mechanisms. The forced switch to more and better use of digital health services has thus created an exceptional momentum, which should not be missed.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have been playing a significant role in the management of the pandemic. AI has been used to automatically detect and remove false information on online media, produce fast and accurate CT scans, 3D-print parts of devices used in ICU, and streamline clinical trials. Mobile technologies and high-performance computing are used for diagnosis, prevention of infection and research for a cure. Even robots are proving helpful by speeding up hospital disinfection and decreasing risks of exposure to the virus. At EU level, several programmes have been launched. For instance, to fight the pandemic, the Innovative Medicines Initiative selected projects using AI imaging, automation and digital devices to improve early detection, diagnosis, follow-up, and preparedness for coronavirus pandemics.

Another example is the use of telemedicine. To reduce physical contact, most GPs and other healthcare professionals, such as psychologists, have been offering an unprecedented amount of phone, video or online consultations. 50% of rare disease patients are estimated to have benefitted from online consultations or another telemedicine options since the beginning of the pandemic –  of which 90% reported being satisfied with the experience. Self- and home-treatments supported by digital tools have the potential of helping both patients and healthcare providers by reducing waiting times and increasing efficiency. While it is important not to eliminate the human factor from care services, digital options such as virtual consultations and remote monitoring can help to decrease the pressure on healthcare systems. For those offering digital solutions, this tremendous opportunity is not to be missed, with providers and decision-makers proving to be exceptionally open and responsive.

A great number of apps have been created in response to the crisis, by public and private initiatives across Europe. For example, the WHO created a dedicated app providing health workers with access to COVID-19 knowledge resources and a service on WhatsApp to answer coronavirus questions from the public, giving prompt and reliable information worldwide and providing the latest figures and situation reports. This is crucial to fight misinformation and fight fake news about COVID-19 – a problem recognised also by the European Parliament. A widespread effort must be made towards health and tech literacy to make sure that no one is left behind, including older generations or people with lower levels of education.

What about data protection and privacy standards?

Undeniably, the digital world requires us to deal with certain risks. Authorities must regulate the matter with utmost attention, carefully taking into consideration the trade-off between privacy and data shared via technology. Adequate anonymisation, encryption and protection of data is essential, as is real informed consent. This is particularly relevant for health data generated and subsequently amassed from mobile apps, as these are widely available to the public. The European Parliament thus calls for the optional use of contact-tracing apps and for decentralised storage of data, in compliance with the GDPR. The EU eHealth Network’s “Interoperability guidelines for approved contact tracing mobile applications”, part of the EU toolbox presented in April, will hopefully help with this.

Cybercrime is another challenge. The number of cyberattacks taking advantage of the current situation has been significant, with a notable rise in malware targeting healthcare facilities and public institutions as well as phishing and online scams towards the general public. Cybersecurity must be a top priority if we want healthcare systems and patients to fully embrace the digital transformation.

Digital solutions can be a revolutionary driving force in healthcare – if safety and security concerns are addressed appropriately

If we were to find a positive outcome of this pandemic, it could be that it made the case for digital in a fraction of time that it would otherwise have taken – in health but also in education or in professional settings, for example. While this is exciting, it is also imperative not to leave margin for avoidable errors, as this may undermine the trust of the medical community and the public. Even before the pandemic, research shows that more than half of EU citizens wanted digital to move up the policy agenda, but only 44% were confident that effective action would be taken in this area. It is time for decision-makers to stop hesitating and to truly unleash the potential of digital health for the benefit of European citizens, while addressing their concerns around personal data and privacy.

At Incisive Health, we are equipped to assist clients from different sectors, from industry to NGOs, in successfully navigating the sometimes-tricky digital health arena. Our experience and expertise enable us to focus on the development of strategies and interventions that will make a difference – and leave no one behind.