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Tackling crises with digital health technologies

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Andrew Davies

Digital Health Lead, Association of British Healthtech Industries (ABHI)

Faced with a global crisis, we have seen the best of digital technologies. The challenge now is keeping these advances in place and building on the momentum achieved.

The development, implementation and use of digital technologies are based on two key aspects; access to high quality, well curated data sets, and patient ‘buy in’ for the safe and ethical use of their data.

When rolling out such technologies for use, we must also consider the unique characteristics, culture and ethical frameworks of a society.

The need to digitise

COVID-19 has put digital technologies in the spotlight like never before, with the need to deliver care in alternative settings, as well as contact tracing apps through our smartphones.

Large datasets, utilised effectively, mean three things for care: it can be more predictable, more personalised and more precise.

It is therefore critical that a comprehensive dialogue is held with the public over the significant benefits digital technologies can deliver, and the trade-offs the public will need to consider in gaining those benefits.

At time of writing, there is debate over the use of a centralised ‘track and trace’ model – the outcome and lessons learnt from which will be central to the advancement of this agenda.

The opportunity of the NHS’s data pool

As the world’s largest single health-payer system, the NHS has a rich data pool. Large datasets, utilised effectively, mean three things for care: it can be more predictable, more personalised and more precise. However, a systematic exercise of data management to ensure usability is needed.

Appropriate regulation and the right mechanisms to introduce such technologies into the NHS, safely, are central too.

Get this right and the NHS can become a living laboratory for the best of digital, bringing benefits to patients and the system.

Digital technologies have also shown great value in enabling new care solutions to relieve system pressures from ‘business as usual’ demands.

The technologies fall into four interlinked areas:

Population management: Through large, integrated datasets, we can map regional trends to identify those at risk in the population and deliver early interventions.

Triage and clinical decision-making systems: Utilising machine learning to offer ‘clinical decision support’ technology can fast track patients to the appropriate clinical pathway.

Digital diagnostics: By digitising diagnostics it becomes possible to diagnose patients in the community or home setting, thus speeding up access to treatment and relieving workforce pressures.

Remote services: The management of patients becomes possible, saving the need to visit hospitals, clinics or GP practices.

Building on the momentum

This is not about replacing doctors with robots, rather, digital technologies can empower patients, target earlier treatment, and free up clinical time within stretched healthcare systems. We have seen examples of all the above implemented rapidly during the COVID-19 crisis. The challenge now is keeping both the technological advances in place and the ability to quickly deploy technology to build on the momentum achieved.

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