Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic has become one of the world’s biggest challenges, with governments and private actors joining forces in finding innovative solutions to accelerate the post-pandemic recovery. The European Union (EU) has adopted the Recovery and Resilience Facility that aims to mitigate the social and economic impact of the pandemic through large-scale financial support of 672.5 billion EUR for investment and reforms.
In the healthcare sector, the EU has launched an ambitious plan to respond to the effects of the coronavirus, namely EU4Health 2021-2027, with a total investment of 5.1 billion EUR. One of its core elements would be to advance digital transformation within healthcare systems, through specialized funding schemes and by boosting the EU’s readiness to overcome cross-border health threats. The EU is leading the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the launch of the Rome Declaration by the G20 leaders and other states, during the Global Health Summit on May 21st is a milestone on that path Some of the principles of the declaration emphasize the need for an increased use of healthtech, facilitating data sharing or know-how transfers to boost digital transformation within the healthcare sector. As the study “The rise of digital health technologies during the pandemic”, conducted by the European Parliament Research Service shows, the crisis had a remarkable contribution in accelerating the transition towards a digitalized healthcare system. However, there is still a risk of widening the “digital divide” through a rapid technological advancement that is not yet accessible to all social groups.
After more than one year of implementing digital solutions to offer a swift and targeted response to the pandemic, how can we assess the impact of different emerging technologies in transforming digital healthcare? Was there an overpromise of adopting such technologies to tackle the pandemic, or do the use-cases show the opposite? And what is the potential for scaling and building a digitally-powered healthcare system?
The technological trends of the healthcare sector are the following:
The role of automation in the healthcare sector evolved exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic, as providers of medical services increased the use of automation within their work processes. Due to the extraordinary pressure generated by the pandemic, the healthcare sector faced challenges that hindered or extensively delayed the workflows of routine medical procedures such as maintaining and handling millions of registers, removing errors from health data, exchanging patient data and ensuring interoperability etc., which will remain with us for a while.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Intelligent Automation (IA) proved to be vital in delivering efficiency, supporting organizations all over the world to keep their operations going during the global health crisis. Especially in the healthcare system, RPA and IA technologies add various benefits for work efficiency and accuracy, while allowing medical staff to focus on higher value tasks. Thus, the use of automation in the healthcare sector presents advantages such as:
- Handling impressive volumes of patient requests;
- Reducing healthcare data errors;
- Providing better conditions for patients, including management of their files or improved communication;
- Improving ordering and billing;
- Supporting early disease detection;
- Increasing precision for diagnosis.
- Enterprise automation company UiPath strives to cure healthcare inefficiencies with automation by reducing burdensome tasks that clutter up healthcare systems, improving workflows, offering patients single-point access to their information (including medical histories, billing information, medical appointments etc.) and reducing supply chain costs. Some of the use cases of the RPA solutions implemented in the healthcare sector include: vaccine management (including regulatory reporting, vaccine scheduling, and mass vaccination appointments or supply chain management), automating the process of a leading US healthcare service provider or streamlining high volume processes (claims processing, data entry, reconciliation for government healthcare schemes) for one of the largest hospital networks in North India;
- The United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) considers applying intelligent automation to core clinical processes as a top priority, given the fact that it can reduce the burden of employees and be cost-effective at the same time.
Robots became essential in providing a response to overcome the effects of the pandemic. They don’t operate autonomously in all cases, as they require human supervision and they can perform simple and repetitive tasks. Especially during the COVID-19 crisis, the deployment of robots increased to help with monitoring patients, delivering medication and supplies, but also sanitizing clinical spaces and being extremely useful for frontline medical workers.
One important distinction should be made with regard to robotics versus traditional forms of automation. While robotics refers to designing, creating and using robots that will perform a specific task, automation involves physical machines and computer software to perform tasks which are typically done by humans. Moreover, RPA is totally different from robotics, as the technology uses software robots to perform actions on an application’s user interface and it’s extremely efficient in automating rule-based tasks.
- Telepresence of robots deployed in hospitals was incredibly useful in allowing doctors who were home based or in quarantine continue their activity, being able to offer support and treatment to patients in emergency rooms and lowering the risks of additional infections;
- Zipline’s autonomous drones are delivering blood products and medication during the pandemic. The company acts as a centralized distribution network for COVID-19 supplies in Ghana and Rwanda and also tries to expand it in the United States, by working with the Federal Aviation Administration.
3. AI and Big Data
Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions are being used in complementarity with data analysis to make predictions on the spread of the pandemic, but it can also determine aspects related to how patients are being treated. AI algorithms have the capacity of analyzing a sheer amount of data to provide early diagnosis, accurate and personalized medical treatment, and to determine a medical framework for prevention and optimal disease management.
There are still multiple ethical concerns on the use of AI in healthcare, part of them being addressed in the first regulatory proposal on AI at the EU level – Artificial Intelligence Act. Given the fact that AI systems used for medical devices might present a high risk for consumers’ fundamental rights, there will be specific requirements for ensuring compliance with the new obligations proposed in the AI Act (which has to be adopted through the EU ordinary procedure).
- Harvard Global Health Institute and Google Cloud implemented an AI-powered dashboard named COVID-19 Public Forecasts that makes projections of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and other metrics for U.S. counties and states;
- AI helps identify potential biased patterns of diagnosis of doctors, that can put at risk groups of people such as the African-American population in the United States (which has higher mortality rates when exposed to the pandemic), and alerts doctors to address such situations in a timely manner.
Healthcare systems need to prove their resilience while also achieving a solid framework for critical infrastructure. This will be particularly important for ensuring data security and safety, especially as medical data is considered sensitive data under data protection rules such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Thus, it is vital to provide reliable mechanisms against potential data breaches, data loss and cybersecurity threats, including cyberattacks, ransomware, phishing, or socially engineered malware.
As the healthcare industry is highly regulated, to protect patients’ privacy and security, several solutions need to be available to achieve robust healthcare systems, such as: backup storage of data, cloud services and encryption to prevent data misuses.
- Cybersecurity plays a crucial role in ensuring safety of health systems and the coronavirus crisis amplified the cyber-attacks on the healthcare sector, as reported by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA). For this reason, ENISA is providing recommendations to secure smart infrastructure during the pandemic, to increase cooperation in fighting cyber threats and to help small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) protect themselves against cyber-attacks during the coronavirus crisis;
- EYE – the coalition of security experts in the Netherlands is offering pro-bono cybersecurity services to support the Dutch healthcare sector against ransomware and other digital attacks during the pandemic.
5. Monitoring COVID-19 with digital technologies
Undoubtedly, technology acted as a catalyst for healthcare innovation. The possibility to monitor and track the spread of the pandemic with digital technologies enabled governments and companies alike to implement resourceful strategies to mitigate the negative effects of coronavirus.
- South Korea, one of the global innovation and technology front runners, implemented a government-coordinated containment and mitigation strategy relying on technology, using contact tracing apps, facial recognition tools, security cameras tools and global positioning system (GPS) to monitor developments of new cases of COVID-19, but also to identifying and isolating infections early. These methods allowed South Korea to remain among the countries with the lowest per-capita mortality rates worldwide;
- Google and Apple joined forces to develop the Exposure Notifications System, which enables users to find out if they have been exposed to someone having COVID-19 and there are already reports that show how this “contact tracing tech has saved lives of between 4,200 and 8,700 users in the UK”;
6. Telemedicine (virtual care) & teleconsultations
The spread of the pandemic incentivized a swift transition to a digitally-enabled way of providing healthcare services, with numerous benefits for both patients and doctors. Many countries worldwide relied on telemedicine and teleconsultations to continue delivering healthcare services remotely, limiting the medical staff exposure to the virus. Thus, telemedicine has proved to have multiple benefits, including its convenience, affordability and capability of high-quality outcomes.
- In the United States, there are initiatives meant to increase the number of telehealth visits such as “decisions to cover them by Medicare, Medicaid and many private insurers, some of whom have even waived co-pays and deductibles for some visits, especially for ones related to COVID-19 symptoms”;
- In Europe, the teleconsultations market is doubling or tripling every year, while the global telehealth market is expected to reach over 80 billion dollars in 2021 and to grow up to 218.5 billion dollars by 2025. As well, a study conducted by Ernst & Young (EY) shows that the “use of telephone and video exploded from 20% to over 80%”, which encourages “the vast majority of physicians (81%) (…) to accelerate their introduction of new digital technologies”.
Technological advancement is a cornerstone in reshaping our economies and societies in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are already remarkable contributions by several technologies delivering innovation and improvements that will transform the healthcare sector and enable the digital transition. From automation to AI, from cybersecurity to data analytics, as well as other new digital tools, we will see the healthcare industry transform and reinvent itself gradually as it embraces the opportunities brought by digital technologies.
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