Digital Health Lead, ABHI
COVID-19 has put digital health technologies in the spotlight like never before, but what is critical to ensuring the benefits are realised, long-term, is a robust public dialogue on the subject of trust.
To be trusted, technology needs to be effective and must be seen as a solution to a problem. COVID-19 has, I would argue, accelerated this conversation to the next level.
Through remote consultations and programmes such as NHS Track and Trace, we have seen wide-spread adoption of digital technologies, and a willingness of the population to embrace these concepts. Admittedly, this has been brought on by necessity, but their success, and importantly, cost-effectiveness, surely means they are here to stay?
Digitalising healthcare could save billions for NHS
Many of the digital technologies adopted prior to COVID-19 were focussed on back office or clinician use, rather than direct patients’ use. Is this a reluctance by the patient to adopt new technology or a reluctance by healthcare professionals to cede power?
Of course, digital exclusion and exacerbation of health inequalities are very real issues and the NHS has a legislative duty to reduce health inequalities. It is estimated that up to 20% of the adult population lacks basic digital skills and of the 4.1 million people who are offline in the UK, 71% have no more than a secondary level education, nearly half are from low-income households, and 80% are aged 50+.
However, the digital agenda should be a situation where everyone wins. According to Ernst & Young, the NHS could get nearly £10bn a year through savings, improved outcomes and economic benefits, with patients enjoying better and earlier diagnosis from new, more accessible care settings.
Up to 20% of the adult population lacks basic digital skills and of the 4.1 million people who are offline in the UK, 71% have no more than a secondary level education, nearly half are from low-income households, and 80% are aged 50+
Patients must be assured they can trust new technology
Also, vital to building trust is the reassurance of a modern, fit for purpose regulatory structure. The current regime, established for hardware-based devices and diagnostics, needs to also support digital innovation adoption, and must be sympathetic to how such technologies work, namely through continuous improvement and iteration as more data is fed into it. A modern regulatory framework that is swift and transparent, that helps maintain and enhance products across their lifecycle is therefore essential.
We have seen examples of data use during the COVID-19 crisis that would have been unthinkable in other circumstances, such as Government sharing data on vulnerable groups with supermarkets. Examples like this have delivered real benefit, in real life circumstances. The challenge now is maintaining the trust and permissive culture to deliver benefits for patients, families, peer groups, the NHS and wider society through use of data.
We need to move the conversation to a broader discussion on
how data is used, rather than a focus on research and development. Meaningful
engagement with the public will not only ensure better decision making, but it
will also aid the design of digital technologies that are effective, and at
their core, trustworthy.