The COVID-19 pandemic has put the global healthcare delivery system under extraordinary pressure. But, as often happens, new opportunities can arise from the deepest crisis. Jean-Claude Saghbini Chief Technology Officer for Wolters Kluwer, Health, shares his insights on five forces for change that emerged during the pandemic, holding potential to transform healthcare in the future.

COVID-19 changed our world in 2020. It affected how we live, interact with each other, and work. Every business and industry had to adapt to a new reality overnight. Healthcare was at the centre of this massive disruption, challenged and tested in ways we’ve not seen in our lifetimes.

While it revealed many cracks, the pandemic has also made us rethink how to deliver healthcare. Times of emergency often act as a catalyst for rapid innovation and 2020 showed this play out in the wards and emergency rooms of hospitals across the world.

We see five key areas of impact for healthcare, each offering the opportunity to emerge stronger for the future. From artificial intelligence and bio-surveillance to virtual care and clinical decision-support technology, these forces are ready to accelerate having been stress-tested in the harshest of circumstances.

1.Virtual care for the most vulnerable

When COVID-19 accelerated around the world, healthcare leaders quickly realised the full scale of the health emergency. The most vulnerable were its prime targets, which confirmed how limited conventional care models are for providing people with broad access to care. It also exposed the complexity of population health management at a time of crisis.

Virtual care could be a growing solution. Its growth in primary care has been exponential, with video consultations now the norm for many GPs. However, its expansion could also transform how we reach more of those in need, helping to significantly reduce health inequalities.

Remote monitoring of chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, can be easily achieved through telehealth technology, which often gives a better picture of a patient’s health than the snapshots obtained during appointed visits. It’s worth remembering the scale of chronic conditions, with 80% of older adults suffering from at least one and 77% at least two.

Virtual care can also reach more vulnerable patients who struggle to access care, such as those in rural communities, older adults and people with limited mobility.

Relatively simple solutions that were previously considered futuristic or technically beyond some of our more vulnerable groups have now been shown to be accessible for large parts of the population, working well for patients and clinicians alike.

If organisations were considering implementing virtual care strategies before the pandemic, they have now been forced to accelerate those efforts.

2. Faster access to medical knowledge

Clinicians often need treatment recommendations they can trust and act on. However, it can take a long time for authoritative guidance to appear in peer-reviewed publications. This literature remains the gold standard for bringing new therapies into practice, but the process takes time and clinicians can face critical knowledge gaps when making urgent clinical decisions.

Nothing has highlighted this need for rapid access to knowledge more than the COVID-19 pandemic, as doctors faced an unknown disease and desperately needed advice and evidence to guide their decisions. At first, the problem was a lack of information. Quickly, this changed into a deluge of information, often conflicting and confusing. Tens of thousands of papers on COVID-19 were published in just a few months, and the pace has not let up. Throughout, a clear need has emerged for technology and processes that can deliver the latest and most authoritative clinical evidence and peer-reviewed information to clinicians when and where they need it most. Clinical decision-support tools, where information can be accessed at the point of care and often integrated with a patient’s electronic health record, are seeing a surge in demand. We’re seeing a paradigm shift to one where it’s the best evidence of the moment that matters.

3.Artificial intelligence and clinical surveillance

As we all know, the pandemic has given new meaning to the concept of big data. The amount of statistics generated has been mind-boggling, and perhaps we’ve seen enough exponential graphs to last a lifetime. The valuable health data on COVID-19, from symptom tracking and testing, has shown how clinical surveillance can build the models that guide government and public health decisions. Now, we are seeing the potential of combining clinical surveillance with artificial intelligence (AI).

By powering clinical surveillance with AI, health systems are not only able to track an existing health situation, they can proactively identify an expanding range of acute and chronic health conditions faster and with greater accuracy than ever before. This allows clinicians to identify at-risk patients earlier so they can take action, significantly impacting patient outcomes and costs.

As public health focuses on prevention, clinical surveillance powered by AI will become increasingly important.

4. Transforming the healthcare workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the problems facing frontline healthcare workers, but it has also shown how adaptable, flexible and resilient they can be. The pandemic forced health systems to rapidly onboard newly trained and recently retired clinicians – and prepare them for radical shifts in practice. Roles were expanded with more teambased and less-specialised responsibilities, as well as more virtual and more data-driven roles. Many hospitals re-deployed clinicians from temporarily under-used specialities into the COVID wards, using their expertise and manpower to relieve the pressure on stretched departments.

Another key factor was the amount of stress the crisis placed on clinicians, with a noted increase in mental health issues, including burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Health workforce strategies must learn from these experiences, especially as the world faces a growing shortage of doctors and nurses. The challenge will be to design new models that foster retention, career development, and self-care. There will also be opportunities to explore the potential for more flexibility between specialisms and the need for training in the soft skills that are increasingly important in virtual care delivery.

Building on the lessons learned during the pandemic will be critical in shaping and preparing future healthcare workforce.

5. Renewing our use of health data

Access to high-quality, consistent and joined-up data across health services will be increasingly crucial for patient safety and cost-efficiencies. Many healthcare industry stakeholders say bad-quality data is a serious problem that needs fixing. Some health systems are making better progress that others. The NHS in the UK, for example, has some of the best and most accurate data in the world. The opportunity going forward is join up data sets across providers, along the patient pathway and using predictive analytics to drive early intervention. This will unleash the power of data for keeping populations well, rather than managing illness and long term conditions.

The COVID-19 crisis created a sense of urgency around data, showing the need to knock siloes down, with a focus on tackling interoperability between data sets and systems. The goal is to make broad access to the right data the key to dramatically improving care coordination. AI can play a powerful role in crunching together vast data sets to find new solutions and accelerate the next generation of healthcare advances.