With millions back in stringent lockdowns due to the new rampant coronavirus variant, and the roll-out of a monumental global vaccination programme – it’s likely that 2021 will be another seismic year for digital health. Healthcare IT News speaks to health leaders about their predictions for the uncertain 12 months ahead. We hear about the impact it will have on NHS primary care, the increase of mental health virtual care and the growing concerns over health data security.
Dr Minal Bakhai, a GP and NHS England and NHS Improvement’s national clinical director for Digital First Primary Care Programme
“General Practice is rising to one of the greatest challenges the NHS has ever faced. Building on the huge strides we have made in digital access, total triage and remote consultations, 2021 holds exciting opportunities to help us deliver more flexible, co-ordinated, personalised care. With two million online consultation requests a month, over 90% of practices enabled with online-consultations and 99% of practices with video-consultations, this is only the start of our journey.
“Key to success in 2021 will be taking the time to optimise the changes we’ve implemented and reduce variation in digital readiness, capability and infrastructure across our systems. Where we get it right, using digital tools to augment face-to-face consultations can improve patient experience, reduce inequalities and prioritise care for those most in need, importantly providing benefit to all our patients, not just digital users.
“Expect to see better integration of general practice with wider primary care, at scale virtual hubs, improved usability of software and data-driven, personalised long-term condition care pathways, building on the collaboration and effective mutual support we’ve seen flourish during the pandemic to make it all happen.”
Dr Sam Shah, chief medical strategy officer at Numan and former director of digital development for NHSX
“The last year during the COVID-19 period has disrupted healthcare but also driven the adoption of certain types of technology. As COVID-19 continues to affect people around the world it seems likely that this trend will continue into 2021. It’s too early to tell whether the changes in healthcare technology will be permanent or not but what is clear is there is now a much stronger focus on public health and prevention than there was previously.
“Policymakers, clinicians and citizens are also realising the value of better-connected health information, for example the visibility of COVID-19 test results or someone’s vaccine status across different platforms. However, with such rapid change also comes a challenge of adopting new technology into the existing health ecosystem, especially in those settings where the infrastructure may not be as mature.
“The use of telemedicine and remote monitoring looks set to continue into 2021, with increased confidence amongst patients and clinicians, better interfaces and improved reliability. It’s likely that this transformation will really help the shift towards care at home and greater self-management.
“AI had become mythical but 2021 looks set to be the year where it may come into its own in the health sector, along with the use of automation. During the next year, we are likely to see more solutions that support not only imaging but also the quality of reporting; as well as the greater use of natural language processing. The combination of these technologies will help improve efficiency in health systems are they begin to recover from the pandemic.
“The interoperability agenda has had mixed levels of progress but 2021 seems to be the year when the need for greater data analytics, better visibility across EHR systems and the need to make population level decisions is likely to drive new solutions in interoperability and integration. Real world needs, such as the visibility of vaccination status is likely to be a key driver during 2021. However, the trend in telehealth may not continue to grow in 2021, partly because the pandemic may have posed such exceptional circumstances that there is likely to be some rebalancing in the coming year and a sign of this may be a greater blend of online and offline care.”
Bogi Eliasen, director of health at Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies
“2020 was a much stranger year than we expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, as it seems now, it will still have a major impact in 2021. The lack of global willingness to cooperate on the necessary infrastructures to halt such a pandemic combined with the lack of capacity to vaccinate at a sufficient pace outside of the richest countries will extend the COVID-19 constraints longer than people hope. This also poses a substantial risk for new mutations that again need new vaccines is high.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic is tragic for humanity, it has provoked some much-needed progress. Firstly, it boosted both openness towards and the use digital functions. For instance, provision of remote health services suddenly took off, even though the crucial parts of the technology have already been present in the last decade. As the pandemic is slowly extinguished the focus will shift to how to use the digital functions in a more efficient manner to create more personal and precise health services.
“There is mounting pressure on developing a trustworthy bio-passport for vaccines which needs to be aligned globally to achieve the desired effect. In fact, we might also see a push towards having a combined bio-passport and tracing app. There is immense demand for such a solution, and it is likely that commercial players will launch some of these features as the travel and hospitality industries are in desperate need for any solution that could enable them to reopen their businesses.
“The revolutionary progress of sequencing technologies, especially in genomics, in the past two decades enabled deep insight into the biology of COVID-19 and an accelerated development of vaccines. The advances in sequencing have brought in a much larger set of actors as well as an expected drop in costs due to the large volume of sequencing initiatives. This improvement will open new areas for sequencing both inside and outside of health.”
Lene Søvold, clinical psychologist and mental health advisor based in Norway
“I believe that the digital health trends in 2021 in many ways will be a continuation of the trends in 2020. New technologies accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic will begin to mature to address specific needs of patients and health professionals. There will also be increasing awareness and demands related to reducing the digital divide and strengthening data security – as well as to the need of providing solid evidence and validations of the newly evolved health tech solutions.
“I think we will see an increase in digital evidence-based therapeutic interventions to prevent, manage and treat both medical and mental health conditions. There will also be more specific and specialised programmes and services for different user groups like adolescents, women, seniors, people with chronic conditions and overworked and stressed healthcare providers.
“Patients will have increasingly higher expectations when it comes to the quality, safety and effectiveness of digital health solutions. The solutions will become more person-centred, personalised and tailored towards patients’ specific challenges, needs and environment.
“Digital health solutions will increasingly strive to facilitate a more proactive and coherent user experience and journey along the whole continuum of health, instead of just providing reactive care, which has been the main focus within traditional healthcare. Patients will also play an increasingly active role in their own healthcare journey and health experience.”
Dr Charles Alessi, chief clinical officer at HIMSS
“We start 2021 with hope and well-founded optimism. Despite the ravages of the pandemic, we look forward to regaining some mobility and communication with colleagues. As social beings, most of us have missed the personal interactions and contact and this is all very welcome. We have lots to look forward to in 2021 and this is a taster of what I anticipate we will see.
“No doubt, some of the technologies we are already starting to use will “come of age” – their additive effects on the consultation could well be transformative. Perhaps 2021 will be the year of voice, or the year where the internet of things (IoT), enabled by 5G becomes a significant area of development. What is certain is there will be change and the rate of change will continue to accelerate.
“Finally, we need to remember that, as alluded to previously, complex adaptive systems often have unexpected consequences, and it would be surprising if 2021 is not remembered for some as yet unexpected new development. We need to remain optimistic that 2021 will be a year that will be better than the year that preceded it. Let us make it a memorable year for change and renewal and one where we continue to aspire to HIMSS vision which is to realize the full health potential of every human, everywhere.”
Linda Comp-Noto, divisional president of healthcare at France-based Teleperformance
“Right now, healthcare providers are challenged with enhancing patient experiences, whilst reducing their efforts in seeking care – particularly in times of great vulnerability. 2021 will be the year of round-the-clock virtual care, to help create a more efficient healthcare network and prevent the spread of existing and future infectious diseases.
“Investment in IoT devices is to skyrocket this year, helping providers manage illnesses and combat the mental health and obesity crises, given that the pandemic continues to keep many people at home. One-third of virtual care appointments are expected to relate to mental health this year. This means healthcare agents will increasingly lean on connected solutions to monitor conditions remotely, proactively check-in with patients, and ultimately act as a preventative measure against future contingencies.”