Has COVID-19 really changed the digital landscape?

20 August 2020 in Tech

By Matteo Berlucchi, CEO, Your.MD

Let’s be honest – coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed everything.

In the same way that pre-2008 the general public didn’t think a bank could fail, before 2020 few — barring experts — imagined a virus could paralyse the planet.

The question is: now we know it can, what actually changes?

The history of coronavirus might be of global government complacency, but we will still put our faith in these institutions to be vigilant, to plan and stockpile. This is despite evidence that suggests they procrastinate on the job, skip the planning and skimp on the stockpiling.

I’ve read many articles from people I respect breathlessly predicting that coronavirus marks a turning point in the digital health landscape. The phrase that has captured my colleagues’ imaginations is that we’ve “moved faster in 3 months than we did in the previous 3 years”.

And for many digital health services that is undoubtedly true. Online consultations and digital triage services have received a massive stimulus from rapid government action and enlarged pots of money.

As a serial entrepreneur and optimist (hard to be one without the other), I can’t stop myself agreeing that coronavirus is the watershed moment digital health has been waiting for.

But I am a trained physicist and, after decades of creating start-ups in a variety of industries, I would like to offer a note of caution.

Everyone involved in digital healthcare has been predicting a landmark moment for many years and we may be dealing with exactly that now – a moment of rapid transformation.

After all, the evidence appears to be there. In just a few weeks, primary care doctors in the developed world have swiftly transitioned from face-to-face contacts to tele-medicine. Many patients have willingly adapted.

However, forced change may not amount to real change. Fear and necessity are strong drivers of habit change, but they may not be enough to lock in the transformation long- term.

What if coronavirus has shifted the needle on the convenience and utility of digital healthcare, but left trust and efficacy behind? Healthcare isn’t real estate, financial services or the travel industry; the human stakes are much higher. The need for face-to-face reassurance has always been central to the whole ethos of healthcare.

Is it possible, when coronavirus becomes manageable like seasonal flu or a measles outbreak, or is vaccinated out of existence, that doctors and patients will want to return to the tried and tested gold standard of face-to-face consultation?

Optimism can often blind us from carrying out the second and third stages of thinking that true transformation requires.

For me, that means examining whether the digital solutions that filled the coronavirus service vacuum are trusted enough to support sustainable transformation.

Our customers are feeling very vulnerable at the moment. There are many people that want their healthcare journeys to mirror their favourite digital customer experiences, but just as many associate a digital experience with an unwelcome loss of empathy and personal interaction.

My point is perhaps a narrow one: coronavirus has cracked the door open, using as a lever the unquestionable convenience and utility of digital healthcare solutions. But the door can shut, or more likely stick, just as suddenly as it was prised open.

For any digital healthcare solution to capitalise on coronavirus, and the disruption it has caused in our market, we need to show sound evidence that we can improve quality, and build our trust credentials too.

The reasons for the slow adoption of transformative digital health technology are many and well-rehearsed. Coronavirus has swept only a few of them away.

Post coronavirus, the bureaucracy of supplying treatment and medication is likely to return. Many patients will demand a return to the gold standard. Clinicians will be too swamped to innovate, and healthcare systems may well revert to prioritising safe change over transformative digital journeys.

How do we stop this possible revision to the norm? First we must appeal to the users. They are not passive. They are a resource that can be trusted to take active responsibility and accountability for their care.

Then we need to harness the public’s willingness to help their local healthcare systems. Harness their desire to save their GP or save the NHS.

If you love your GP, use an app first. If you care for your patient, prescribe an app, not a pill.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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