The healthcare industry has a golden opportunity to consolidate the advances achieved in digital health and virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now is the moment to capitalise on a remarkable shift in the energy and expectations of younger healthcare professionals, among whom the rapid accumulation of experience throughout the COVID-19 response has significantly changed attitudes to digital health technologies.

This shift is captured in the Future Health Index (FHI) Insights: COVID-19 and Younger Healthcare Professionals survey, which supplements the main Future Health Index 2020 global report, The Age of Opportunity. The Future Health Index insights report captures feedback from 500 doctors under the age of 40 in five countries: the United States of America, China, Singapore, France and Germany.

Before the pandemic, 60% of younger healthcare professionals surveyed for the main report considered AI the digital health technology most likely to improve their work satisfaction, compared with 39% who felt that telehealth would have the most impact. The latest research reveals that COVID-19 has reversed those predictions, with 61% now favouring telehealth over AI (53%).

The benefits of digital health technologies, including telehealth, realised during the crisis are reflected in the 47% of younger doctors who reported greater appreciation from their patients, and in the 44% who experienced enhanced collaboration with their colleagues across different skillsets.

Staying power

Among the most significant research findings for the future of healthcare in terms of retention and commitment is that 38% are more likely to stay in medicine as a result of their pandemic experience, while just 9% are more likely to abandon medicine. Pre COVID, 25% of younger healthcare professionals had considered leaving the healthcare profession as a result of work-related stress. In other words, a prolonged global healthcare crisis that might have been expected to leave a trail of professional burnout and disenchantment in its wake has actually galvanised the commitment of much of the workforce.

This, according to Jan Kimpen, chief medical officer at Philips, which published the survey in September, is highly significant if the industry is to successfully exploit their enthusiasm around digital health, and their hopes for continued investment in technologies that will carry the benefits for their work satisfaction into the future.

“The balance between people being more energised to stay on in the profession, and inspired by the work they are doing, and the respect and recognition from their peers, society and their patients has had a positive effect on them – and that’s a hopeful result,” he says. “I have so much respect for these people who literally put themselves in harm’s way during COVID. And this is what we need: human beings in healthcare.”

The human benefits derived across virtual care during the pandemic, including improved patient relationships and greater collaboration between frontline medics and their specialist colleagues in other departments, could only have been achieved with digital technologies that enable information and patient data sharing.

“The pandemic revealed how the connection between doctors and their patients could be preserved because of the digital health opportunities that we had,” says Kimpen. “We saw very fast that telehealth and virtual care was making it possible for patients to take care of themselves remotely with the help of doctors, without having to go to hospital and face the fear of being infected by the virus there.”

Before COVID, virtual care had been a ‘nice-to-have’, he explains. During COVID it rapidly became a ‘need-to-have’. The ability to maintain a patient/doctor relationship remotely was a major step-up for virtual care.

Kimpen suggests that two aspects of telehealth in particular have signalled a strong future direction: remote monitoring, which accelerated greatly during the pandemic, enabling patients with chronic diseases to be cared for at home; and data sharing across platforms such as the COVID-19 portal in the Netherlands, which allow patient data to be shared in real time, in a secure, safe and confident way among colleagues in different departments and hospitals.

According to research carried out by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), 32% of people in the US with at least one chronic health condition had used telehealth in April, May or June. More specifically, 44% of diabetes patients, 37% of asthma patients and 33% of those with hypertension had accessed telehealth services.

Industry hurdles

Taking this trend into a dynamic post-COVID era will depend on overcoming four hurdles. And it is in the power of four key segments in the healthcare industry – technology providers, healthcare professionals of all ages, hospitals and governments – to build on the advances already achieved.

For technology providers such as Philips, the digital solutions that make this degree of data sharing possible, the focus must be on making them easy to use, interoperable, trustworthy, safe and secure. Healthcare professionals must also play their part by embracing the new ways of working that these tools support.

Hospitals must be ready to invest in IT infrastructure while knowing that ROI will only come in time and is dependent on adoption by their professional users. And governments must resolve privacy and safety issues to allow data sharing – among hospitals, and ultimately across state or country borders – with decent but not restrictive legislation.

Kimpen warns that healthcare systems which are slow to seize the virtual care momentum risk being left behind as the industry continues to pivot to value-based healthcare: digitalisation is a key enabler of cost reduction and the provision of better patient experiences through this transformation. In this new world, some of the transformations seen in the reimbursement arena, for example, are likely to continue as new ways of accounting in areas such as remote patient consultations or digital pathology assessments become mainstream.

The way in which telehealth appears to have leapfrogged over AI as the technology that would have most improved work satisfaction during COVID is probably more to do with the way in which younger doctors seized the tools to hand than a reversal of a pre-COVID trend. Kimpen says that AI has certainly not been pushed back on their agenda – it is simply that telehealth helped them in real time. They continue to have high expectations for both technologies.

Great expectations

Those expectations will play an important role in the ongoing evolution of digital health beyond the pandemic. National health systems will all face their own challenges as they navigate the complex journey to value-based care. But as the results of the Future Health Index Insights report reveal, the wealth of experience obtained by younger healthcare professionals across the industry in such a short and intense period is probably one of their most important resources. It might even hold the key to future success.

Research methodology

The Future Health Index Insights: COVID-19 and Younger Healthcare Professionals survey was fielded from June 19 to July 30, 2020 in 5 countries (China, France, Germany, Singapore and the United States of America) in their native language. The survey was conducted online and offline (as relevant to the needs of each country) with a sample size of 100 per country for doctors under 40 years old, who have completed their first medical degree. The survey length was approximately 10 minutes. The total sample from the survey includes 500 doctors under 40 years old.

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Source: Rise of digital health during pandemic energises commitment and expectations of younger doctors