Global Health

COVID-19: watershed moment for digital healthcare?

Doctor standing with arms crossed against hospital icons in background

Digital technologies have enabled real-time connections between health professionals and patients. Image: Creativeart, freepik.com

Shobana Kamineni
Executive Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited
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Global Health

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Impact of COVID-19 has compelled the world to adopt digital healthcare technologies.
  • Challenge remains to address global inequalities as 47% of world not online.
  • EDISON Alliance part of movement to support multi-stakeholder collaborations that will deliver patient care post-COVID-19.

The year 2020 was a watershed moment in modern history. Faced with a rapidly spreading virus, the global response to COVID-19 was not just a race to find drugs and vaccines that would treat and prevent the disease and stop its spread; countries also rushed to limit the social and economic impact and sustain supply and demand to prevent market shock.

The WHO, in the prescient Global Preparedness Monitoring Board report of 2019, warned of the economic devastation from a global pandemic. The World Bank estimated that a global influenza pandemic akin to the scale and virulence of the Spanish flu in 1918 would cost US$3 trillion, or up to 4.8% of GDP.

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One of the key engines driving the global response was the digitization of society and the economy. The UN Digital Economy Report 2019 had highlighted the increasing digitization of the world economy, with digitally deliverable service exports at 50% of global services exports in 2018. The pandemic led to an even more rapid digital migration, with organisations racing to continue doing business and serve customers. For consumers—buying groceries online to digital classrooms—almost every pre-COVID activity made the transition to a digital channel.

Digital transformation of healthcare

Perhaps the greatest shift during the pandemic has been towards digital health. As early as 2016, projections indicated that by 2020, 40% of IoT-related technology would be health-related, transforming healthcare as we know it. From wearables and mobile apps that monitor health indicators and track real-time health data, to devices that auto-administer therapies on a pre-programmed schedule, the digital disruption in healthcare was taking place albeit slowly. COVID-19 has accelerated digital adoption and transformed healthcare delivery.

In the US, telehealth has replaced cancelled healthcare visits. Data reveals a jump in telehealth usage by US customers from11% to 2019 to 46% now. The increased adoption of digital technology and AI by users for online consultations of non-metro users increased from 25% to 40% of total users.

Healthcare providers rapidly scaled-up digital offerings that enabled not just optimization of efforts to control and treat COVID-19, but also continuity of care for patients suffering from other conditions. In India, while in-person appointments reduced by 32% from March to November 2020, the number of people using online consultations increased by 300%. The Apollo 24/7 app saw a 100% month-on-month increase in active users, with over 15 million people from 440 cities across the country taking the COVID-19 risk scan.

The pandemic led to countries embracing the power of AI and technology to address the COVID-19 challenge. Staying digitally connected enabled real-time collaboration between researchers and an exchange of experience and expertise in fighting COVID-19. In India, the private and public sector launched digital risk surveillance initiatives such as Aarogya Setu and Apollo 24/7 that help in syndromic mapping, self-assessment of risk and contact tracing.

European countries released national solutions for digital contact tracing, and the European Commission’s Digital Strategy gained renewed importance with digital tools used to monitor the spread of COVID-19, the research and development of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, and to ensure that people stay connected and safe online.

Digital ecosystems that protect data as well as health

Digital healthcare trends indicate a major shift from inpatient to outpatient care and from outpatient to ubiquitous access to healthcare at home supported by technology. Consumers have gradually become more comfortable with medical apps accessing and handling their personal health data – in 2018 global medical app downloads exceeded 400 million. The pandemic has seen increased adoption of medical, wellness and fitness apps, and telehealth taking off, this trend is set to continue.

In the future we will see wider adoption of smart devices—not just in urban areas but also in semi-urban and rural areas—as remote healthcare moves apace supported by 4G and 5G infrastructure, some hospital care will go mobile.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about healthcare data privacy?

Governments are also supporting the move through appropriate policy frameworks to facilitate investment and adoption of a digital health ecosystem, recognizing the challenges of data usage and privacy. This is in line with WHO’s Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025 that recognizes the importance of integrating financial, organizational, human and technological resources if a digital healthcare ecosystem is to deliver its potential for promoting healthy lives and wellbeing for everyone, everywhere, at all ages on a national or regional scale.

The healthcare sector is rapidly evolving and there is no doubt that the metrics of healthcare will change, no longer being tethered to geography, but possibly to latency as hospitals, tech companies, insurers, and governments start converging. For instance, telehealth capacity will be created on the cloud with medical advice on tap and digital technology will enable creation of a healthcare ecosystem at scale.

Challenges for a post-covid world

We also need to be cognizant of the weaknesses in the system that the pandemic has exposed. With 47% of the world not online and accessibility and affordability challenges in rural areas, there is an urgent need to reduce inequalities by ensuring universal, affordable access to 21st-century digital infrastructure.

Success would require sustained investments by the public and private sector with multi-stakeholder collaborations across industries such as healthcare, IT, telecoms, insurance and governments: this is where the EDISON Alliance will play a critical role.

Taking inspiration from Thomas Edison’s radical approach—creating the first innovation labs and turning innovation into a team exercise—the EDISON (Essential Digital Infrastructure Solutions Network) Alliance will take a ‘network of network’ approach that identifies and amplifies solutions through cross-sector collaborative relationships that drive impactful outcomes at scale and pace.

Led by a broad-based group of leaders who will serve as Champions of the EDISON Alliance (mobilizing their peers, networks and existing initiatives) they will support and amplify existing efforts, connect ecosystems across sectors, address gaps where necessary and engage the public through sustained, impactful communications to deliver seamless patient-centred care in a post-COVID world.

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Global HealthHealth and HealthcareDavos Agenda
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