Two years ago we covered some of the interesting developments in health tech as a response to COVID-19. Now, with the pandemic into its third year, we thought we’d sit down with the experts and take stock of the industry.
“Healthcare systems around the world have responded in different ways to the pandemic, with differing degrees of success,” says Dr. Stefan Harrer from Digital Health CRC. “Some of the biggest challenges have been communications, especially between regulatory bodies, healthcare providers and the public.”
So what have we learned from COVID-19? What’s worked and what hasn’t? And how is health tech planning for the next global outbreak? Here are the big health tech learnings to emerge from the pandemic.
Health tech can achieve amazing things
Dr. Harrer says the biggest and most obvious success over the last three years has been the synchronised vaccine roll-out in many countries around the globe, including Australia (“after a bit of a stuttering start”). “The fact that multiple regulatory bodies have been fast and efficient in condensing approval process for vaccines, while at the same time maintaining scientific rigour, it’s been astonishing,” he says. The vaccine rollout hasn’t been perfect, of course, or even particularly fair. Vaccine inequality is a new challenge that health tech, and governments, will have to address over the next few years. Still, the advent of mRNA vaccines, and the sheer speed and scale of the rollout have been big wins for health tech.
Digital is the future
The writing was already on the wall for digital healthcare, even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 saw an incredible acceleration in telehealth adoption. “Digital health got a tremendous boost,” Dr. Harrer says. “The pendulum will not swing back. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for healthcare to increase equity and efficiency, and some services – particularly telehealth, virtual care and at-home care – have made more progress in the last two years than they did in the previous 10.” The stats seem to back this up. In Australia, before the pandemic, 85% of GPs didn’t offer any form of telehealth. Two years later, over 96% of GPs now offer telehealth as part of their service. That’s a tectonic shift any way you look at it.
Value is still essential
One catch with rapid innovation and digital transformation is that the end user (patients) can sometimes fall through the cracks. It’s become obvious over the last two years that if health tech is going to provide real value, it needs to focus on its users, not just its providers. “It’s not about clinician versus telehealth,” Dr Harrer says. “The future is a hybrid where in-person visits are complemented by virtual ones. While the pandemic has expedited the development and deployment of telehealth services, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of those services were developed hastily, and without careful consideration of patient needs. We need to see more industry investment in user-centric design, as telehealth is a consumer-driven services business.”
Vaccine innovation has awoken
“Vaccine development might have been considered a sleepy industry in the past,” says Anis Uzzaman from the Forbes Finance Council, “but pharmaceutical companies now realise that innovation is critical as we prepare for what may happen next.” Health tech has obviously ushered in some incredible vaccine breakthroughs in the last two years – designing mRNA instructions for cells to build unique spike proteins being the big one – but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. As new COVID variants emerge, health tech will need to keep up. To that end, Pfizer and BioNTech SE have recently launched a clinical study into omicron-variant vaccines, and BCC Research is reporting that the global market for mRNA products “should grow from $46.7 billion in 2021 to $101.3 billion by 2026.”
Communications really matter
One surprising lesson over the last two years has been the importance of communication. Good health tech is meaningless if no-one wants it, understands its value, or trusts it. And COVID-19 has highlighted that simply producing valuable technology isn’t enough. You also have to explain it, and particularly the value it brings to those who use it. “I don’t think ‘failures’ is the right word,” Dr. Harrer says, “but one of the challenges has definitely been communication between regulatory bodies, healthcare providers and the public around pandemic responses. ‘Social distancing’ for example. That was a bad comms flaw right there. It’s not ‘social’ but ‘physical’ distancing that’s required.” Future health tech will need to take into account not only cost and efficacy, but also PR and marketing. Patients, investors and healthcare practitioners all have different needs, and concerns, when it comes to health tech. Efficiently communicating to those distinct groups will be an ongoing challenge.
Hospitals are going to change
Taking telehealth one step further, over the last two years we’ve seen the rise of so-called “virtual hospital wards”, where centralised communication infrastructure is used to oversee several patients at once, all in their own homes. The Center for Emergency Medicine in western Pennsylvania has even proposed a ‘Virtual ER’ to decrease the cost of emergency care and provide a better range of services. These virtual wards won’t work for all emergencies, obviously, but they’ve proved useful for monitoring COVID symptoms and managing treatment plans. Other departments are using similar programs to help ease pressure on overcrowded admission wards. West Hertfordshire Hospitals in Watford, for example, set up a virtual hospital in 2020 and saved over 300 ‘bed days’ over a three week period.