Digital Healthcare: the new frontier

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The future of healthcare has arrived. Our ‘next normal’ is now.

After years of quiet advancement on the sidelines of the public’s consciousness, e-healthcare has been catapulted centre stage by COVID-19. With its potential to dramatically improve care for the millions of people across Europe with unmet healthcare needs, it’s unlikely we will ever go back.

Consider this: a global health crisis that has tested healthcare systems across the world; a simultaneous and seismic shift to digital and virtual solutions; a spotlight on the realities of the digital and health divide; and a clear mandate from the new European Commission to consider more efficient, effective and sustainable means of doing things. An unlikely confluence of unprecedented events has enabled digital healthcare to truly come of age.

I recently hosted an esteemed panel of specialists across European government, business and healthcare to discuss The Future of Healthcare.

The keynote was by Cristian Busoi,  Chair of ITRE Committee, European Parliament, who was joined by Katalin Cseh, Vice-Chair of Renew Europe, Romana Jerković, Member of ITRE Committee, European Parliament, Donna Walsh, Executive Director of the European Federation of Neurological Associations, Helena Lisachuk, Partner, Deloitte and Leonard Witkamp, Director of Kysos, the Netherlands’ first digital hospital.

The discussion revealed not only the trends seen throughout the pandemic so far but, importantly, the opportunity to translate these learnings to advance and scale remote healthcare capabilities.

The mass adoption of online behaviours – from remote working and learning to digital commerce and banking – has not only accelerated the use of telehealth, but also confidence in the technologies it relies on.

A McKinsey study found that 76% of consumers in the US expressed interest in using telehealth going forward, compared with just 11% before the Covid-19 crisis. Meanwhile, over 90% of digital healthcare providers say they will invest more in e-health solutions in the future.

Digital healthcare brings transformational and cost-effective solutions, enabling virtual consultations, diagnostics, monitoring, prescription services and clinical trials. In addition to broadening access, remote treatments are also widely thought to increase the chance of survival.

It is estimated that 70% of healthcare delivered in hospitals today will take place remotely by 2025. The success of this transition will depend on a policy environment that supports investment and innovation, adaptive government practices and favourable insurance structures, as well as encouraging coordination across key sectors.

And while the pandemic has been a clear catalyst for digital health solutions, it’s important that we are not purely reacting to immediate needs. We need to take a forward-looking approach to building resilient systems that are patient-centred, outcome-based and accessible by everyone.

This means focusing on the tools, services and approaches that patients really value. It means responsible data sharing for access to the best and latest medical developments. The newly-announced consultation on healthcare data by Commissioner Breton is in that respect very welcome. However, it is also about closing the gap of health inequalities by ensuring connectivity and building digital literacy.

It will also be incumbent on governments to put in place the legislative structures and support to bring telehealth to its full potential – establishing well-defined policies with an emphasis on sustainable investment, allowing data transparency while preserving privacy and security and fostering a system that encourages disruptors who can challenge the status quo.

And while the EU has proposed a 20-fold increase of Europe’s health budget to more than €9 billion, we will also see a growing need to understand the economic value of e-health services to institute a model that can effectively scale and meet the needs of everyone – not just the wealthy, nor the urgently ill.

Truly digitally-transformed care will be about more than just healthcare, it will be about health – including preventative care, research and addressing the needs of an aging population.

While a lot of these actions depend on public institutions, there is much we can do from within the private sector to facilitate and speed up the transition. As the world took a huge leap forward in digital skills and trust in response to COVID-19, our next-generation broadband and mobile networks also stepped up to the plate to meet the challenge of unprecedentedly high demand.

The role of connectivity providers in underpinning the new frontier of healthcare is a significant one.

We will continue to provide world-class connectivity solutions wherever we operate: building on the 14 million homes to which we offer gigabit speeds today and increasing mobile solutions through 5G and a growing converged footprint.

The future of healthcare is here. And it’s promising.

Technology, in e-health or any other sector, won’t ever replace human interaction. But with enhanced experiences, productivity and outcomes, we can get back time to do the things we love most. And that’s something I’m happy to take away from a pretty extraordinary year.

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