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Surge in digital health tools to continue post-pandemic

Four healthcare leaders explain how COVID-19 will help make digital health tools mainstream.

Health systems have rapidly rolled out digital health tools to meet the needs of both patients and providers during the COVID-19 crisis.

Interest in digital health tools, a broad term that refers to the use of technology to deliver healthcare services to patients digitally and can include technologies such as wearable devices, mobile apps and telehealth programs, will likely continue long after the pandemic ends, according to healthcare experts.

Already, healthcare systems are increasing the number of telehealth services they provide. They are embracing symptom checker tools and tools that enable practitioners to keep tabs on patients remotely. It's also resulted in healthcare CIOs looking to contact tracing tools for managing the spread of the virus.

During a recent HIMSS webinar, four healthcare leaders discussed how the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital health tools and why that interest will continue after the pandemic ends.

Digital health tools help with response

Digital health tools such as telehealth programs have become a crucial element of the pandemic, especially as governments and health systems began mandating work-from-home and shelter-in-place orders, according to Bernardo Mariano Jr., CIO and director of digital health innovation at the World Health Organization in Switzerland.

Bernardo MarianoBernardo Mariano

But, Mariano said, more work needs to be done, including the development of an international health data exchange standard so countries can do a better job of supporting each other during a crisis such as COVID-19. For example, Mariano said, while Italy was suffering from an overload of patients at hospitals, neighboring countries may have been able to help treat patients remotely through telemedicine. The lack of an international "principle or regulation" hindered that capability, he said.

As the pandemic stretches on, Mariano said the proliferation of contact tracing technologies is also growing, with countries seeking to use the technology as part of their reopening strategies. Mariano said the COVID-19 crisis could accelerate the adoption of a global healthcare surveillance system like contact tracing that will enable countries to quickly analyze, assess and respond to outbreaks.

"The power of digital solutions to minimize the impact of COVID has never been so clear," he said.

'Digital front door technologies' are key

Pravene Nath, global head of digital health strategy at Roche, a biotech company with an office in San Francisco, also cited the explosive growth of telehealth as an indicator of the impact COVID-19 has had on healthcare. While they are instrumental now, Nath also believes digital health tools will last beyond the pandemic.

Pravene NathPravene Nath

Nath said the crisis is enabling healthcare systems to readily make a case for "digital front door technologies," or tools that guide patients to the right place before stepping into a healthcare facility. A digital front door can include tools such as acute care telehealth, chatbot assessments, virtual visits, home monitoring and self-monitoring tools.

"I think the disruption here is in the access and utilization of traditional care models that's heightened the value of digitally-driven chronic disease care management, such as platforms like MySugr for diabetes management," he said. MySugr is an app-based digital diabetes management platform that integrates with glucose-monitoring devices.

"We think the adoption of these kinds of technologies will accelerate now as a result of the total disruption to physical access to traditional healthcare environments," he said.

Nath said after the pandemic has passed, healthcare systems that quickly rolled out digital health technologies will need time to assess how to be "good stewards" of that technology and patient data moving forward.

Mobile app use grows

"Digital technologies play an important role in managing the crisis," said Päivi Sillanaukee, director general of the Finland Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Päivi Sillanaukee Päivi Sillanaukee

Digital health has played a role in keeping patients informed via mobile apps and other online methods. Sillanaukee said by having tools that provide reliable, up-to-date information to patients has resulted in a decrease in time-consuming calls to healthcare workers.

Finland has also begun looking into contact tracing tools, although Sillanaukee said she has seen an acceleration in discussions about patient data safety along with the contact tracing discussion.

Pandemic bypasses change management

While the benefits of digital health were evident before the crisis, such as remotely connecting patients to doctors, Benedict Tan, group chief digital strategy officer at Singapore Health Services, said the challenge has long been change management and getting buy-in from providers for digital health tools.

Benedict TanBenedict Tan

But COVID-19 and social distancing have changed that, suddenly presenting a need for tools such as telehealth, analytics and remote monitoring to help manage patients during the crisis, and they are showing the value of such tools, he said.

"What COVID-19 has done is accelerate, or give motivation, for all of us to work together to leverage and see the benefits of what digital health can bring to society," he said.

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