Post-COVID-19 Trends in Digital Healthcare

During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw a major uptake for telehealth and many other digital healthcare tools, while the clinical trial space was massively disrupted. DataArt experts share which changes are fleeting and what technologies are here to stay.
24/07/20
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By Varvara Bogdanova
Marketing Coordinator, Healthcare & Life Sciences
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Post-COVID-19 Trends in Digital Healthcare

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus at the beginning of 2020 and its rapid spread across the globe have had a huge impact not only on public health, but on every aspect of life. We have had to change the way we interact with each other, the way we travel, do business and go shopping. Healthcare systems around the world were tremendously affected during the first wave of the pandemic. High contagiousness and rapid spread, high mortality among certain demographic groups, and a shortage of protective equipment and life-saving ventilators left people in shock. Medical professionals worked to exhaustion to care for the seriously ill.

Now, when the spread of the virus seems to be being brought under control, restrictions are being eased and life is slowly starting to resemble more normal patterns,  it’s time to see how this unprecedented event has affected healthcare and what developments we’ve witnessed during the pandemic will be here to stay.

We have looked at the most important trends and asked DataArt thought leaders – Daniel Piekarz, Egor Kobelev and Ivan Pantykin – to comment and share their ideas about where we are going in digital healthcare post-COVID.

Telehealth Solutions May Replace Many Doctor Visits

Telehealth has taken off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everywhere in the world we see telehealth solutions offered by a large number of providers. As Egor Kobelev, VP of Healthcare Technology, points out, “The fact is, the technology has been around for a few years, but people were reluctant to use it, largely because of habits developed over decades. The pandemic left no choice, there was simply no fallback offline option for many. Telehealth will never replace traditional visits in a lot of situations, but there are no reasons it should not replace in-person visits where it can.”

Leveraging telehealth is not just about patients connecting with a doctor through a telehealth platform for a short virtual visit to get a prescription. There are hospitals that are bringing telehealth stations into patient rooms, so that a specialist from another hospital, maybe from another city or state, can examine the patient through the telehealth system. It is not just about connecting patients and doctors, it is also about connecting doctors to doctors and being able to extend the scope of what each individual can provide for patient care.

Some people argue that telehealth is hype-driven at the moment. Telehealth solutions have experienced a boom during the pandemic for obvious reasons. However, as life gets back to normal, a traditional visit might still be preferable as the trust a patient builds with a doctor through personal visits cannot be compared to communication through a virtual meeting.

Daniel Piekarz, SVP, Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice Leader, argues that as telehealth unfolds, with time it will be little different from the way the majority of telehealth works today. In the future, every single doctor will be enabled with telehealth technology, and after the first physical visit, a patient can move to a virtual visit. There will be a hybrid. “I think in the future, you’ll make an appointment with a doctor, talk to them, and they will determine whether or not a televisit is appropriate,” Dan says.

Ivan Pantykin, Vice President, Healthcare & Life Sciences, DACH, also suggests that there will be a shift toward developing telehealth solutions in a number of peripheral areas, like mental health, rehabilitation, and lifestyle management, where an actual visit to a doctor is often not necessary. These applications will spread with the development of remote patient monitoring and wearable technologies.

Additional Applications for Telehealth

Mental Health and Lifestyle Management

The pandemic has affected not only health but lifestyle. The majority of the population were in lockdown for about three months. A lot of bad habits came with sitting at home: eating too much, drinking too much, and not getting enough exercise are just starting to have consequences. Daniel Piekarz says, “I think we are going to see the healthcare system affected long-term, not just the physical impact when a person gets sick, but also the mental health impact on the overall society.”

These developments have triggered the spread of many different telehealth solutions not related to primary health care. Mental health applications, rehabilitation, lifestyle and training apps, as well as addiction control and all kinds of patient monitoring, will continue to develop, moving a face-to-face visit onto the Internet to reduce contact and the risk of passing on an infection.

Virtual Clinical Trials

Clinical trials became difficult or impossible to conduct during the pandemic, with the majority focused on creating a vaccine against the coronavirus. Beyond that, many trials were halted because people could not be physically present at the site. Pharma companies and CROs were moved to try new ways to get them running. Though hard to perform, televisits became part of the process. This applies to observational trials where it is possible to monitor a condition, track the system, and collect relevant information. This can be performed remotely. In the future, there will most likely be a hybrid alternative in which a doctor and a patient still meet from time to time, but visits in between are unnecessary if the information is collected properly.

Drug Development and Drug Repurposing

In drug development, there has also been a push towards artificial intelligence for drug discovery. For example, Boehringer Ingelheim has partnered with Berg to work with a precision medicine AI-platform to help push forward drug development. One of the companies trying to create a vaccine for COVID-19, Moderna, is using messenger RNA (mRNA) to do this. And the way they have created this is based on artificial intelligence. The first vaccine for COVID -19 will likely be created with the use of AI. In the future, leveraging artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, and analytic information will lead to a workable vaccine much quicker. And this can be applied to all kinds of future epidemics.

Another area where AI can be used to speed up creation of a new therapy is drug repurposing in which an existing drug is used. AI is applied to analyze everything that we already know about this drug - its effects on the body, receptors that it connects to, and side effects. Through modeling this data, we can identify, for example, whether a drug that is used for malaria can also be used to fight COVID-19. In the future, the ability to look at existing drugs on the market and run them through AI drug repurposing platforms could help us identify new drug candidates to fight COVID-19 and other viral diseases much more quickly. Since these drugs are already on the market and have been approved by regulatory authorities, the process to have them approved for the second indication is much faster.

Other Technologies

Contact-Tracing Applications

Google and Apple are contracting to work on contact tracing APIs that can help track the spread of the virus even when there are many asymptomatic carriers. These kinds of applications will develop in the future, but what’s key is that we have one application for each country or state. Daniel Piekarz points out, “If you have multiple applications and they are not sharing data, the system does not work very well. You need to get to a certain point where the majority of people have this app on their phone, because if only 10 percent of people have it, it does not work.” This is indeed a very interesting technology that could be very helpful in managing COVID-19 and other pandemics.

Travel-Related Health Screenings

Our experience as travelers will most likely change as health screenings at airports and train stations will become routine. This may appear in the form of contactless temperature measurements and speed blood-testing to make sure a traveler is not a carrier of the virus. It may also come in the form of a health pass, an example of which has been recently introduced by Clear. Egor Kobelev explains, “There is no doubt it is going to become a part of the standard airport screening process across the world. Naturally, the speed of adoption will vary, depending on jurisdiction, but it is not going to be too slow simply because when you fly internationally, there are two jurisdictions involved, so some degree of global coordination is unavoidable.”

Epidemiological Modeling

As humanity faced the new threat of COVID-19, it quickly became obvious that we were not all that ready to fight back or at least protect health and lives. Vaccines take a very long time to develop as they run through a complicated process of clinical trials and regulatory approval. More than that, if we develop a vaccine for COVID-19, we are still unable to predict what the next pandemic will be or how the virus will mutate. “What is possible to do now is to work out solutions that help create epidemiological models. These models are AI-powered algorithms that, having collected and analyzed a great amount of relevant data, can help predict how fast and where any epidemic will spread,” Ivan Pantykin says.

These predictions will help us be better prepared in terms of having enough supplies or making decisions to close borders to slow the spread of a disease.

Information Collection and Analysis as a Challenge

As we described technologies and advances that will continue to develop in the future after COVID, one global challenge should be addressed here – patient information collection, accumulation and analysis. In the future, we will have to learn to collect patient data in a single patient profile in order to create systems and solutions for decision support. The same applies to telehealth that collects patient data from difference wearables as well as different clinics, hospitals, and emergency rooms. This data should be standardized and stored properly in one location in order to make those systems effective and ensure better care.

What about Regulations?

As the healthcare and life sciences industry is highly regulated, there is a natural concern about how fast the changes that we describe will be adopted. In the current situation, governments around the world are relaxing some regulations around telehealth, allowing doctors to care for individuals outside their city or state. As for drug development and repurposing, governments are now fast-tracking drug research to try to deal with the crisis more quickly. In the future, there will undoubtedly be changes in how the healthcare system is regulated.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 epic will eventually come to its logical conclusion and the lockdown will end. However, life will be different and the hard lessons that we have learned should be addressed soon, so we will not be caught out again, whether in a second wave of COVID-19 or another pandemic. New healthcare and life sciences solutions will be adopted and implemented in order to minimize risks and improve outcomes.

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