Pandemic ‘transformative’ for digital health sector

Out-Law News | 23 Nov 2020 | 4:37 pm | 3 min. read

The Covid-19 pandemic has been "transformative" for the digital healthcare sector, pushing the public sector and industry to collaborate like never before, according to a panel of healthcare professionals.

The challenge now will be for the health sector to continue to innovate amidst resourcing constraints and historic underinvestment in IT, according to the panelists, who were speaking at a virtual session on smart healthcare (registration required) hosted by FT Intelligent Business. The panel was chaired by Cerys Wyn Davies of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.

"The pandemic has seen huge acceleration in the use of digital technologies, including AI, across the healthcare life cycle from drug discovery and clinical trials to diagnostics, patient care and wellbeing," Wyn Davies said. "Rather than taking decision making away from human control, as is sometimes feared, these technologies are providing the support required to enable healthcare professionals to be in control of better decision making for their patients."

James Kinross, a consultant surgeon at Imperial College London, described the "core sense of mission" that had driven increased collaboration between the NHS and digital health companies, particularly in the early part of 2020.

"It’s been phenomenally productive," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that Covid has been transformational. In six months, the NHS and healthcare organisations globally have managed to overcome major barriers in the transformation to digital technologies - and we’re not going back."

"Part of the reason was that we simply had to change our way of working – it was not optional. The NHS adopted Microsoft Teams within a week, but we simply could not have operated if we had not done that," he said.

"The pandemic has been a global catastrophe in every sense, but positive relationships have come out of it. Patient trust will be absolutely vital, and we have learned painful lessons in the NHS about the implications of getting it wrong. Everyone in this field puts trust and transparency at the forefront as a result," he said.

Emma Fauss of Medical Informatics Corp (MIC), a Houston, Texas-based medical analytics company, offered a commercial perspective. She said that large US healthcare providers were able to transition digital pilot programmes to an operational phase very quickly, but that smaller providers that had not already integrated innovation into their strategic thinking before the pandemic hit had struggled.

"We are seeing this again during the second wave [of infection]," she said.

"While we saw a push to getting prepared during the lull between ‘peaks’, US healthcare organisations often struggle to know where to prioritise in relation to technology, and where to invest," she said.

James Fleming, IT director at London’s Francis Crick Institute, said that buy-in from those in senior roles was needed if the healthcare sector was to continue to innovate.

"Digital is about helping humans to do ‘inhuman’ things well, such as remote work and work at scale, but this requires a holistic approach and a solid foundation," he said. "Healthcare has lagged [at decision making level] in overall understanding of what IT can do, and the need to build up capabilities over time and get the fundamentals right."

"Previously, the risk of ‘doing’ outweighed the risk of ‘not doing’ – now, that has reversed. Innovation is likely to flow at a much greater rate because of this," he said.

Kinross, Fauss and Fleming each considered that the lack of technical expertise in the healthcare sector was partly driven by skilled professionals being pulled away from the sector into the tech industry and similar fields. However, Fleming, who worked in telecoms before joining the research institute, said that he was optimistic that healthcare would be able to recruit those looking for rewarding work "if smart about it".

"There is a significant imbalance of supply and demand for skills, and that is only going to increase post-Covid," he said. "The challenge for healthcare is to rebrand itself as a purposeful, rewarding environment, unlike [for example] search and social media."

"We need to rethink what that proposition looks like, both for people who are graduating right now and people who are veterans of the industry and are perhaps looking for something fresh to do. I made the transition, at least in part, because I wanted to do something that was giving back more to society, and I found it hugely rewarding to do so," he said.