Digital Healthcare and Post-COVID-19 Medical Travel

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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the healthcare space for much of the year. The ravaging coronavirus outbreak altered healthcare systems globally to make unprecedented changes to tackle the crisis. In the wake of the pandemic, healthcare systems and hospitals canceled elective procedures and treatments to increase resources and hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients. These challenges accelerated the paradigm shift in healthcare, speeding up the integration of digital healthcare solutions to bridge the gaps in patient care and those induced by the health crisis.

Before the pandemic, relatively few health professionals leveraged digital health approaches to healthcare, with some hospitals considering it an option for healthcare delivery. Recent research, however, shows the trend is reversing, and healthcare systems are beginning to invest heavily in digital health technologies to drive patient care.

In the first quarter of 2020, the number of telehealth consultations in the US rose by 50% compared with the same period in 2019. Telehealth consultations at the end of the quarter also increased by more than 154% increase compared with the same period in 2019. The surge in telehealth consultations is attributed to the strict social distancing and lockdown measures and people’s desire to limit exposure to the infection.

At first, telemedicine provided alternative access to health care for patients with pent-up demand for non-emergency, essential healthcare, much of which had been suspended to tackle COVID-19. Earlier surveys showed that more than 42 percent of US adults reported delaying or avoiding medical care during the pandemic for fear of exposure to the infection. However, as the coronavirus outbreak began to spread, telemedicine platforms became a tool to rein in the outbreak and provide care to COVID-19 patients.

Many healthcare systems adopted telemedicine platforms to triage and screen patients for potential exposure to COVID-19. Using symptom screening algorithms and other online screening tools, healthcare professionals could identify those with a high risk of infection and who may need hospitalization. This digital triage reduces the burden on the healthcare workforce and also limits the spread of the infection.

Teleclinic, for instance, a telehealth application developed in Germany, ramped up COVID-19 screening and diagnostics in Germany, assisting healthcare professionals to identify high-risk patients early. The app requires users to fill out questionnaires with questions that are based on WHO COVID-19 risk criteria. Bases on users’ answers to the symptom assessment, healthcare professionals send test kits to users with a strong risk of infection and advise them to remain in isolation until they test negative for the infection.

Tech companies also rolled out AI-driven chatbots that can identify moderate and high-risk patients and refer them to triage lines to speak with nurses. Many of these bots also have video interfaces that allow virtual consultations with doctors.

In Indonesia, the digital healthcare platform Halodoc partnered with dozens of hospitals in Greater Jakarta and Karawang to allow people to book online for drive-through COVID-19 tests. If a patient tests positive using both the rapid and PCR tests, they consult with healthcare professionals via the app’s video or phone platform to determine the most appropriate treatment plan.

Halodoc now has more than 7.2 million users receiving virtual healthcare since the pandemic began, with more than 300 percent download rate. The digital platform also partners with local pharmacies, laboratories, and ride-hailing service company Gojek to facilitate COVID-19 diagnostic and treatment logistics.

Medical professionals also adopted digital health solutions to provide remote patient monitoring and management of patients with COVID-19 infection. Using video technology, doctors can communicate virtually with COVID-19 patients receiving care at home or in the hospital to monitor treatment progress and provide advice. The pandemic also saw the rise of tele-ICU platforms that provide real-time audiovisual connections between remote critical care teams and patients in distant Intensive care units.

In New Hampshire, the pandemic led anesthesiologists to develop a virtual ICU technology that allows ICU teams to confer with doctors in rural areas managing COVID-19 patients until the patients are transferred to a larger hospital. Through this platform, the ICU team can provide consultations to more than 20 rural hospitals on ventilator management, management of acute respiratory distress, and pain control, allowing COVID-19 patients access to the same expertise as is available in urban centers.

Other hospitals developed AI-enabled systems to coordinate treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients. In Hospital Clinic de Barcelona, doctors use machine learning models to analyze patients’ data directly from electronic health records and determine which patients will fit in which treatment category. These AI systems also provide analytic tools to screen patients for the risk of COVID-19 complications before they even appear.

Further, the pandemic led tech companies to develop other innovative solutions to contain the spread of the infection. Apple and Google, for instance, developed a contact-tracing system that tracks exposure to an infected person without needing to install the app. Consequently, users can opt-in to the system without submitting any personal details, including their locations.

The app works with an exposure notification system that uses Bluetooth signals from connected smartphones to track contact with an infected person. If one of the users tests positive for COVID-19, the system sends alerts to other phones that may have been exposed to the infected user. Several states in the US have developed other contact-tracing apps that use this system to effectively for effective disease surveillance, eliminating barriers such as privacy concerns.

This growth of digital healthcare during the pandemic is gradually leading to a permanent shift in healthcare delivery, which sees many patients still receiving care via these virtual tools even as the outbreak has slowed down in many countries. While many of these solutions were created in response to the scourge of the pandemic, they have exposed the gaps in healthcare that can only be filled by a digital transformation.

The success of these digital health innovations has shown that stakeholders in healthcare are open to this paradigm shift and that these solutions can swiftly upturn care delivery. Therefore, the post-pandemic era will see the rise of a hybrid healthcare system, one in which conventional methods of care are replaced by or interlaced with digital approaches to make healthcare delivery more efficient.