It has less to do with COVID-19 than you might think.

Piotr Sokolowski

July 28, 2020

8 Min Read
digital health
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic brought much-needed change to healthcare delivery practically overnight, as the increased risks from hospital visits saw many healthcare professionals move care from clinics to the comfort of patients’ homes. But truth be told, COVID-19 was just a spark that accelerated a movement that was already well underway. Policymakers across the world had already been pressing ahead in legislation to allow doctors to prescribe digital health treatments and administer solutions at home. The reasons driving the movement are bigger, more systemic, and longer-lasting than the current pandemic: put simply, poor access, a lack of flexibility, and a dependence on brick-and-mortar facilities have made the costs and processes of traditional healthcare delivery unsustainable.

Recent events have shone a light on the issues facing healthcare, and we now have an opportunity to significantly increase the pace of change. Areas like banking, retail, and grocery have proven their ability to adapt quickly to the rapid changes in daily life brought on by COVID-19, no doubt facilitated by sustained past investment in internet technologies and connectivity. The healthcare industry could benefit from a similar approach: further investment in connectivity could take the pressure off hospitals and hospital-based care, allowing clinicians to meet the needs of many more patients in any similar scenario in the future.

The further proliferation of connected devices and full-service healthcare offerings that enable home-based care will be key to helping us adapt and thrive in this new reality, driving significant benefits for medical device companies, health systems, and the general public for the foreseeable future. Here’s why.

Digital Health Solutions Offer Better Flexibility and Reactivity to Real-World Scenarios

The reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic is just one demonstration of the flexibility that digital health solutions can bring to healthcare when required. Throughout the pandemic, home-based care has been the only option for many patients, especially the chronically ill, as in-person treatment brings too many risks and is not possible.

The latest technology has made that shift relatively simple. Increased portability and connectivity mean many treatments can now already take place at home, while further advances in technologies like implantable devices, neurostimulation, and artificial intelligence mean that more diseases will be treated autonomously. While many of these treatments will require clinical monitoring and oversight for the foreseeable future to guarantee patient safety and regulatory compliance, patients and clinicians who were driven to remote care by the COVID-19 outbreak now see a future for it well beyond the pandemic.

Efficiency is just one reason. Increased accessibility means health services can reach and care for more patients, more cost-effectively. But digital health solutions also allow a more rapid response. The oversight mentioned above is not just important for safety—it also reduces the likelihood of symptoms suddenly worsening or going unnoticed, subsequently easing the strain on acute and emergency care services.

Finally, home-based digital solutions simply offer more comfort to patients. “Telehealth” services mean patients no longer have to travel long distances for often-very-minor procedures or adjustments, as these can now be managed remotely. Additionally, appointment timings for remote procedures can be much more flexible, fitting in better to patients’ lives and boosting convenience and compliance.

What Happens Post-COVID-19?

All that being said: what exactly prevents us from returning to the status quo once the pandemic is over?

Firstly—unfortunately—it’s hard to imagine a post-COVID world at this point in time. With the pandemic likely to continue in waves and surges well into 2021, we’ll have to live with its impacts for a while longer. Remote, patient-centered therapies and programs will likely be the only way to continue providing non-critical care.

The ongoing pandemic—and continued pressure on healthcare systems—may well lead to real change rather than just more talk. That leads to point number two: the pandemic has suddenly changed people’s perception on what’s possible, practical, and convenient to do remotely.

That goes not just for patients, but for healthcare providers, payors, and governments, too: many previously “insurmountable” obstacles were, in actuality, quickly solved. In the United States, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act not only approved and encouraged telehealth services but also now reimburses them at the same rate as in-person consultations. While these are still considered emergency exemptions, it can’t be denied that they improve access and patient comfort at a cost comparable to—or lower than—traditional care.

Finally, if this isn’t enough to bring about real change, any ‘return to normal’ could be a real wake-up call for the system. With many procedures having been delayed for months, an immense post-lockdown demand surge will lay bare the structural problems in our system and the access, quality, and cost issues they cause.

Examples of Digital Health Solutions Adapting to the New Normal

There’s already a range of examples of businesses using digital health solutions to facilitate patient treatment and monitoring. With the increasing prevalence of regulations enforcing remote connected care—like Germany’s Digital Care Act and new UK standards for digital health—that momentum is likely to continue.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Fresenius’ new digital connected health platform, TheHub

Among a range of factors, rising costs of dialysis care and with increasing numbers of patients with late-stage kidney diseases led Fresenius to invest in digital connected health. An Executive Order on Advancing American Kidney Health from U.S. President Donald Trump added yet more importance to the developments.

TheHub includes three integrated applications, which enable patients, care teams, and providers to improve collaboration and monitoring of patient treatment.

More than 15,000 patients, 3,000 nurses, and 2,000 providers have used TheHub’s applications to submit more than 2 million flowsheets and 17,000 supply orders, to triage more than 1 million daily treatment data records, and to submit more than 1 million rounding notes.

Research by FMC indicates that patients who actively use TheHub’s connected health solutions have higher transplantation rates, a 20% lower risk of hospitalization and stay on the modality longer.

In the United States, patients prescribed a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure) device must use it for more than four hours a night, for more than 70% of nights, for more than 30 days in a row within the first 90 days of therapy to continue to be reimbursed for its use.

Adding connectivity to CPAP devices is a simple way to track device adherence and provide additional support to patients. By including a wireless communications chip inside every CPAP and COPD device that ResMed sells (which is connected to AirView, its physician-management software), it has been able to track device usage accurately.

In a study with Sleep Data, the results showed an almost 60% reduction in clinicians’ labor costs. Another study with Kaiser Permanente found that the device could not just lower the cost of therapy setup, but it could also increase patient adherence by 21%.

The very high costs of hearing aids, as well as the monopolization of the market by the top five hearing aid vendors, made the sector ripe for efficient digital health solutions. Upcoming OTC regulation, set to come into force in early/mid 2021, is a regulatory trigger that is likely to spur businesses into action.

Hearing Care Anywhere allows hearing professionals to serve patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond thanks to remote programming.

With up to 30% of hearing aid appointments scheduled for minor adjustments, the technology enables professionals to remotely make fine-tuning adjustments to optimize hearing aid performance while ensuring patient safety.

Medical Device Vendors Should Be Creating Connected Solutions—Not Just Devices

So what should medical device vendors be considering when approaching the challenge of creating connected solutions?

Firstly, devices themselves will increasingly be commoditized. Devices need to deliver the maximum possible value for vendors and end-users alike.

Secondly, with ‘remote’ solutions potentially the only way to access patients, providers, and devices, connectivity is now indispensable.

That being said, it’s important to realize that devices alone—even connected devices—won’t fully solve our problems. Real solutions will consist of not only devices, but far-reaching software-based tools and platforms that tie everything together efficiently, securely, and conveniently in one place, while providing data for clinical monitoring and oversight, reimbursement, and post-marketing surveillance.

Finally, tools and platforms need to be integratable, and manual activities need to be minimized—otherwise they may well create more work, rather than reducing the burden on clinicians and patients. This type of automation in digital health solutions, combined with meaningful patient and clinician engagement throughout development, will result in usable solutions that will see further adoption post-COVID—as long as the value is clearly communicated to providers and they can be reimbursed.

Patients, clinicians, and solutions providers alike are already seeing the benefits of digital health. A pandemic-driven shift to home-based care is giving us a glimpse of what better healthcare provision could look like, and, as we’ve seen above, many providers are already picking up the gauntlet. Those who are already getting started will be much better prepared for future crises, as well as for disruptive policy changes.

As we settle into this new normal, it’s vital that we, too, keep the momentum up and use this time to consider what we want the future of healthcare to be, how we get there, and how to create solutions that maximize benefits for all.

About the Author(s)

Piotr Sokolowski

Piotr Sokolowski is head of services strategy at S3 Connected Health

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