In the midst of the pandemic, health services across the world placed almost all available capacity into their COVID-19 response. As the UK and Europe enter the COVID-19 endemic period, Incisive Health’s recent polling looks at what services the public want to see prioritised in the ‘restart’ of healthcare systems across Europe.

Against the backdrop of economic uncertainty, global dissonance in pandemic management and fears of exposing already vulnerable people to potential risk, Incisive Health polled 10,000 people across five countries in Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom) to understand which services they believe are most urgently needed. The complete findings of the report can be found here.


Cancer is the public’s no. 1 priority

The results emerging from the polling show that cancer services should be reinstated as a priority. Just over half (54%) of all respondents identified cancer screening and treatment as one of their top priorities. The reopening of cancer services is a particular priority in Italy, with 62% of respondents stating it as one of their top choices compared to only 43% in Germany. With almost three times the acute care bed capacity than Italy and Spain, Germany’s healthcare system’s preparedness during the pandemic may explain the comparably low priority given to the reopening of cancer services in Germany.


Prioritising primary care

Resuming primary care services, such as GP appointments, was another top priority for European respondents. This is particularly true for respondents in Spain (51%) and Italy (39%). As people in the countries most affected by the pandemic also appear to be most “scared” of engaging in primary care services, there is a particular need to address the increasing backlog of patient appointments. Effectively reassuring the public that these health services are now “safe” again to visit will be vital in encouraging people to address their symptoms with their GP.

To reduce the exposure to physical contact and potential transmission, appointments have moved away from face-to-face contact towards telephone or virtual consultations. NHS Digital data from May 2020 illustrates the speed and scale of this transition. In January and February of this year, only 19% of GP appointments were conducted over the phone. By April and May, at the height of the pandemic, telephone appointments accounted for 62% and 61% of all GP appointments, respectively. This is the first time since the NHS Digital records began that telephone consultations have overtaken face-to-face appointments as the preferred method of GP engagement.

Similar trends were seen across Europe, with a recent study in Spain illustrating the move from face-to-face towards digital consultations throughout the pandemic.

Whilst the adoption of such innovations presents an opportunity for resuming healthcare provision across Europe, careful consultation with the clinical and patient community is required to ensure that telephone and digital consultations are tailored to the individual needs and circumstances of the patient.


Avoiding a future mental health crisis

Mental health services and support are seen by over a quarter (27%) of respondents as a priority. The UK is the country most concerned with restarting mental health services, with 35% of respondents selecting them as one of their priorities, compared to only 24% in France.

Anxiety and stress related to social isolation, bereavement and economic uncertainty is likely to further impact those already suffering from mental health conditions, as well as their families and carers. Adequate capacity and workforce investments are required to help address the rising mental health challenge emerging from the long-term impact of the pandemic.

The findings of the polling have demonstrated the public’s desire to return to some degree of ‘normality’. Adequately supporting key health services to address the increasing backlog of appointments and making sure patients feel safe again to come forward with non-COVID-19 related symptoms, will be crucial in ensuring that services are prepared for a potential second wave of the pandemic later in the year.