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by Dr Anees Fareed
Published on September 13, 2020

You all might have read and seen the predictions and visualizations on how a post-COVID era might look like for health care from experts and pioneers in the industry. All of them unanimously state the arrival of a new normal. While reading through some of the suggestions, I’ve been curious to know how many of those transformations we have seen and/or predicted are entirely novel to the industry. Is a new normal being created or is it a timely upgrade of old normal? So, let’s dissect a few of them and see how ‘new’ they are.

Remote health care powered by telehealth

The point of care has increasingly been switched from hospitals to homes, or to other places the patient requires help. We have seen a quick surge in hospitals and medical centers using telehealth technologies to enable virtual visits and remote care delivery for their patients. Interestingly, the technology existed in the pre-COVID period as well, but organizations were reluctant to capitalize on it because neither providers nor patients truly believed that telehealth would work for effective and quality delivery of care. And to some extent, it has also been because of tightened regulations, payment restrictions, and the fear that the capital investment wouldn’t bring a positive return on investment (ROI).

COVID has shown us that telehealth should be an integral part of care delivery as an effective and safe way of treating patients and containing the spread of the infections at hospitals, clinics, and medical offices. More importantly, both patients and providers experienced the convenience factor of care being delivered at their proximity. Though the number of telehealth consultations or virtual visits is expected to decline slightly post-COVID, it is very much here to stay and will still be widely used by patients to avoid those unnecessary visits to hospitals and medical centers. Many health facilities have already started investing more to scale up virtual visit and telehealth capabilities by enabling it with artificial intelligence, integrating with point-of-care and home-based monitoring devices, and seeking out virtual patient engagement platforms.

Digital health transformation as a key priority

Health care has been notorious in adopting innovative technologies slower than other industries, such as aviation or banking. However, it didn’t take much for health care facilities and systems across the world to wake up and jump on to – or at least explore – innovations and technological advancements in the wake of a pandemic. These include AI-based diagnostics, cloud-based storage of medical records, and integration of information across the care continuum in and outside hospitals during the pandemic.

Other technologies that governments and health care organizations explored were contact tracing via phone tracking, data analytics to understand the pandemic better, online dashboards to visualize, trend and predict data from various sources and simulate scenarios to make better decisions. Some other technologies used were wearable devices to collect patient data, robots to disinfect, deliver documents, and take vitals. All of them proved to be highly successful. Again, this is a shift in focus for many organizations from being in laggards or majority segments to early adopters or innovators in the technology adoption life cycle.

Increased focus on preventative care and public health

Governments and authorities will focus on preventive care and strengthening of public health systems

infrastructure, including primary health care services, social care services, and community-enabled health care services. Governments will promote epidemiology, hygiene, and disease prevention methods. The pandemic has shown us that countries with more robust public health systems, primary care services, and a healthier population perform well in the fight against the pandemic and this is going to continue. Here in the Middle East, we have seen Dubai effectively managing the pandemic by coordinating with community-enabled services and working with voluntary organizations.

The demand to shift from curative care to preventive care by strengthening primary care systems focused on disease prevention, social care, and community-enabled health care services is not a novel idea. Experts have been advocating it for years as they address the broader determinants of health and focus on the comprehensive and interrelated aspects of physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Local health care systems should take steps to safeguard the role of voluntary and community organizations as long-term partners in promoting health and wellbeing.

Social media to continue influencing

During the pandemic, plenty of information spread faster than the virus leading to an infodemic. Though a lot of information was incorrect, unvalidated, fake, or misleading, social media has played a powerful role in spreading useful and correct messages, to create awareness and educate millions of people in a short period, which helped to contain the pandemic. These social media platforms are also being used to help people stay healthy indoors, relieve stress, and stay connected even while locked at home.

Fortifying infection control measures

Hospitals will continue to give more importance to stringent infection control measures and safety practices. Health facilities started advocating the importance of maintaining hygienic measures to patients, care providers, and support staff. Hospitals will continue their efforts in preventing hospital-acquired infections probably with much more importance than before by proactively identifying infection sources and carriers, and separating patients from the source to prevent any route of transmission. The pandemic has given greater awareness among people about bringing back best hygienic practices – such as handwashing – into their routine, which needs to stay.

Optimizing the workforce

During the pandemic, we have witnessed health care workers being overstrained because of increased patient volumes in hospitals and a lack of suitable providers with the required skill set, such as a shortage of staff in intensive care units and emergency departments. Many facilities leveraged primary care physicians and nurses to deliver specialized care under guidance. As increasing the workforce will not be a priority least until the economy flourishes back, the focus of organizations would be on optimizing the existing workforce by upskilling them and enabling them to work in multiple specialties.

More spending on health and wellness

‘Health is wealth’ is an old proverb that has become more relevant these days when people have begun to realize a higher immunity was the result of a healthy lifestyle. This includes not just nutritious food, but also staying active and maintaining optimal mental wellbeing to improve chances of survival and reduced morbidity. People have started looking at how they can stay healthy by eating good food, ensuring enough physical activity in their routine, consuming natural supplements that can support immunity systems, and resorting to wellness therapies to relieve stress, anxiety and maintain a general sense of mental and physical wellbeing.

Health care can be flexible and faster!

Finally, the pandemic has proven that health care decision making does not always have to be rigid and sluggish – it can respond quickly, especially in adapting to change, rebuilding the strategy, structure, and processes, and revising policies towards creating value. Those long discussions and debates in decision-making meetings, the habit of clinging onto outdated policies, long approval processes, and those overinflated hours for project implementations were all proven to be unnecessary if we really want to work towards value-creating opportunities. Many organizations were able to roll out virtual visit workflows within one-to-two months, which could have taken at least six-to-twelve months otherwise.

Conclusion

Though there’s consensus that the pandemic has changed the way we do business in health care forever, all those changes embraced by the health care industry aren’t entirely new or unheard of. They have been there for a while at least as proof of concepts, preached by innovators and technology evangelists to improve the way health care is delivered, financed, and accessed by consumers. However, health care organizations, investors, governments, and regulators weren’t fully convinced about the potential of those innovations, hence the cry for change in bringing real value in the form of improved efficiency, experience, and outcome. The pandemic has been a wake-up call and the industry is going back to a normal that is stronger, smarter, and healthier.

 

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