There is no denying that technological advances have had enormous impact globally across all sectors, and the UK’s healthcare sector is no exception.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 and strict limitations on face-to-face contact between patients and healthcare providers, we have seen the rapid adoption of digital/virtual tools designed to maintain care and alleviate the burden on an overstretched healthcare system in a challenging and distanced environment.
However, digital technologies are by no means new to healthcare. In recent years, this sector has seen many revolutionary technologies and smart innovations changing people’s lives for the better. Here are just some examples:
Virtual healthcare and telemedicine
An 1879 article in the Lancet discussed using the telephone to reduce unnecessary visits to the doctor but it seems to have taken a pandemic for this idea to gain real traction. Telehealth or telemedicine has exploded as a result of COVID-19 and it has become the norm for doctors to interact with patients using video conferencing, phone or mobile apps. As in other industries, this has brought benefits beyond patient safety such as the ability to triage patients efficiently so that GPs’ time can be targeted where needed most.
The NHS health app now offers an advice service similar to the 111-telephone/online service with a catalogue of FAQs and recommendations. GPs have also adopted eConsult, a digital triage tool that enables patients to submit their symptoms for review and access online consultations.
Mobile apps, wearables and implantable drug delivery
Biometrics and behaviour trackers, not limited to smartphones and watches, are also becoming the norm. With the rise in popularity of healthy living and mindfulness, we have witnessed the ever-increasing capabilities of these devices; from monitoring our heart rate and sleep success to tracking our movement and activity levels.
Applications extend beyond general wellbeing to support the better management of ongoing conditions for example by measuring and transmitting blood sugar and blood pressure data or monitoring pacemakers and drug-eluting stents remotely. Allowing healthcare providers to monitor live data at a distance reduces the need for frequent in-person check-ups and hospital visits, allowing patients with long-term illnesses to live more independent lives.
Many of these devices are driven by artificial intelligence and the list of AI applications continues to grow. AI’s ability to analyse and identify patterns in large sets of data make it extremely useful in a number of areas such as screening, clinical trials, matching patients to the appropriate drugs, as well as diagnostics and the detection of diseases such as cancer.
The application of 3D printing has gone well beyond the creation of customised prosthetics, surgical instruments, implants and anatomical models, applications for which there is already some level of awareness. Researchers are now looking at Bioprinting, a new technique that prints complex tissue and cells. By generating a variety of transplantable soft tissues, including skin, bone and cartilage this technique could have massive potential benefits in our ability to test drugs, provide organs for transplants or artificial tissues for skin grafts.
As we are living longer, the care of our ageing populations is becoming increasingly demanding on our services. Care bots that support the delivery of essential care through remote monitoring, medication reminders and even companionship are seen as a potential solution, with studies suggesting that care bots can help to mitigate loneliness where individuals are suffering in isolation.
But is this at the expense of the quality of care?
As these developments often replace or reduce levels of human interaction, many are asking if the benefits of technology come at the price of the quality of patient experience.
Care by definition is about caring for all aspects of human needs and the human elements - empathy, compassion and the reassuring touch of another human – are critically important to the quality of care. Care needs to be based on trust, with patients treated as individuals with individual needs, feelings and concerns, rather than anonymous numbers in a queue. At times of stress, pain or anxiety humans need warmth and reassurance, which is hard to achieve through a bot, mobile app or even a video call.
What is more, ethical questions also arise in regard to maintaining dignity and respect for the elderly or vulnerable if bots are to be deployed as carers or companions. Questions have been raised about whether eConsult is contributing to the efficiency of NHS services or creating a backlog and de-humanised care. The introduction and implementation of new technologies also raises the issue of digital exclusion. Studies have found that digital exclusion is most likely to affect older and disabled people, meaning those with a considerable need to engage with healthcare solutions.
With the potential introduction of a digitalised COVID-19 passport via the NHS app on the horizon, it is clear that we will continue to see new digitalised services across the healthcare sector. And as new technologies are designed, we do need to question how they are deployed and ensure that they support and supplement human interaction rather than replacing it.
The best of both
However, when deployed well, technology can help alleviate pressure on healthcare services, reduce the burden of administrative tasks and allow human skills and resources to be targeted where they add most value, improving the overall quality of care rather than diminishing it.
When used to supplement rather than replace real human interaction, new technologies offer a wealth of potential benefits for individual patients, healthcare providers and the healthcare system as a whole, not least:
Better decision-making and improved learning through data capture and AI applications.
Greater efficiencies through streamlined or automated processes such as online triage prioritising care to those in most need.
Better quality of care for patients through flexible and convenient access to services and tools for self-management.
Offsetting the burden on resources as the NHS attempts to recover and manage the ongoing impact of COVID-19.
Helping provide care and companionship to the elderly and vulnerable, particularly as the population ages.
Connecting communities – bringing together individuals with shared needs and health conditions for mutual support.
As with technological advance in any sector, we can have the best of both worlds, if we find the right balance between human and technology.
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