The COVID-19 pandemic has put us in a dilemma: we are more aware of the importance of staying healthy, but getting access to regular medical services is getting harder. Many people are wary of going to hospitals or clinics because of the risk of exposure to the virus. Many public health and wellness centers have also closed down or limited their operations.
Discover how digital healthcare and health technologies have the potential to revolutionize how healthcare is and will be provided in a post-COVID19 world.
What is digital health?
In a nutshell, Digital Health is how patients and doctors use information technology and digital technology to access health data and essential health care services.
Digital health was actually on the rise even before the pandemic. At that time, concepts like artificial intelligence, big data, or electronic health records were not part of our everyday vocabulary. Most hospitals and clinics somehow had websites that provided information on their services or allowed online booking appointments.
There were also several websites, forums, or social networks where people could research chronic conditions or post questions about symptoms. WebMD is by far the largest source of medical information in the world. Every month, a staggering 160 million people log in to check on the health.
But until COVID-19, digital health was seen as a secondary or even an inferior source of information. Many doctors actually looked down on these online sources and disliked it when patients mentioned: “something they read on the Internet.”
The pandemic forced both patients and doctors to make digital tools a central part of health care delivery. Because of quarantine measures, or fears of exposure to the virus, people are looking for ways to get medical advice or seek treatment for chronic conditions or common diseases like the flu without going physically to a clinic.
In that situation, digital technology was the only means for them to stay home while still getting the appropriate professional medical help. Here are some ways that people used the Internet to stay safe and stay healthy.
Many people require regular check-ups with their doctor. Pregnant women needed to see their obstetrician; parents worried about contacting their pediatrician if their baby had a fever.
While some consultations and treatments still required physical check-ups and hospital visits, virtual consultations made it possible to report symptoms or seek advice for non-threatening conditions. Virtual reality companies such as Neuro Rehab VR or XRHealth even offer rehabilitation sessions without getting out of the home.
This led to the rise of online consultations, through private appointments via video teleconferencing platforms like Zoom, or websites that could set you up with an available doctor on call. During those calls, doctors could assess if the condition could be managed online or merited a physical examination. Check on the best telehealth consultation services available to know more about the best online healthcare providers.
When the Covid-19 pandemic ends, both patients and doctors will have realized the many benefits of virtual care, and no doubt that digital health will become an integral part of our healthcare journey. Even counseling, orthodontics, dentistry, or psychiatry are getting digital.
Shared access to health records
Doctors will often need to look at prior records or see the test results to make an accurate diagnosis. Traditionally, they will read the patient’s file or ask the patient to bring the test results on the next visit.
However, COVID-19 restrictions required everyone to limit unnecessary travel and face-to-face contact. That meant doctors and patients had to be able to see and share health data online. Today, laboratories can email their test results or send them straight to a clinic or hospital’s database. Soon everybody will carry his full life Electronic Health Record in the format of a credit card.
Of course, the primary concern is how to digitize health records and ensure data security and privacy. How do you upload a patient’s health records, how can you make that information easy for doctors to use, and how can you prevent that health information from leaking? Both the law and medical ethics require Patient-doctor confidentiality. Blockchain technology is a way to ensure privacy and safety.
That’s why one of the long term challenges of digital health technologies is data security and access. Even if the COVID-19 vaccine promises that one day we will be able to confidently and safely use traditional health services, everyone now sees the potential to speak to a doctor anytime and anywhere. This is just the beginning of digital health care. Health information technologies will revolutionize how to deliver health. The question is not when but how fast?
Even before COVID-19, wearable devices were already trendy. Apple, Samsung, and other top brands already sold watches that could measure your blood pressure, pulse rate, sleep patterns, stress levels, and the number of steps you take a day.
These apps did not replace the need to talk to a doctor—even if you know your health statistics, you don’t know how to interpret them—it did enable people to regularly and proactively monitor their health. This is especially important for those with chronic health conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
These devices also empowered doctors to get more accurate health data. They can diagnose the problem, adjust maintenance medication, and spot possible complications earlier.
Mobile health as a diagnostic tool
Today, perhaps one of your most powerful medical device is your own cell phone. Anyone can download a health app, and enjoy features that help them take charge of their physical and even mental well-being.
Here are some of the most commonly used health apps and how people use them to manage everything from sugar levels to anxiety.
- Diet trackers like MyFitnessPal allow users to record their calorie intake and calorie burn from their exercise activities. Others like Shopwell helped consumers make healthier food choices and even get a nutrition score by scanning any ingredient label.
- Health information apps like HealthTap gave instant, free access to professional medical advice. Users could post a question and get a reply from a doctor within the day. They could also check a huge archive with 700,000 articles on 850 common or chronic health conditions.
- Lifestyle wellness apps like HealthPal took a more holistic approach. Users could monitor food, exercise, sleep, water intake, and other aspects that contribute to overall physical well-being. Rather than providing health information, these apps were more of a daily tool for creating healthy habits.
- Anxiety management apps like Moodpath helped users monitor their emotional health. Allowing a “daily mood check” offered insights on patterns and triggers and could help people suffering from chronic anxiety and depression ask for early intervention.
- Meditation apps like Headspace offered calming meditations to improve sleep, manage fears or even full-blown panic attacks, or process feelings of helplessness or regret. While this app was famous even before COVID-19, many health care professionals noticed a spike of anxiety and stress disorders during the pandemic—and praised the role of self-care apps in helping people cope better during the crisis.
- COVID-19 apps gave users critical information about the virus. Apple even worked with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to release a unique app that provided updates, health tips, and local prevention guidelines so users could be more proactive about protecting themselves from exposure.
- Specialty health apps are designed for diabetes or other chronic conditions to help patients know when they need to call a doctor. Users inputs information—such as sugar levels or blood pressure—and the app will generate a chart or highlight any days when health indicators are beyond normal limits.
The future role of digital technology in healthcare delivery
When the pandemic caused global lockdowns and quarantine measures, the health industry quickly adapted information technology into their essential services. COVID-19 was one of the biggest public health crisis the world had ever known. They needed to share information about the virus and find ways to ensure that people could access primary health care. Covid-19 chatbots were even used with mixed results.
Digital health care has a central place even in a post-COVID-19 world. There are clear benefits to providing health services online—and even in the long term, we will see that digital technology defining and refining the medical industry. According to Grand View Research, the Digital Health global market will be close to $1 trillion in 2028. More than a good to have, we are witnessing a complete paradigm shift in how healthcare will be delivered.
- More affordable and accessible health care. Online consultation can make it easier and cheaper for people to speak to a specialist. They don’t have to travel to a big city to see a doctor or wait for months to secure an appointment with the only specialist in their area. By breaking the physical boundaries of healthcare, digital technology makes it possible to achieve the ideal of “healthcare for all.”
- Improved collaboration between healthcare professionals. Information technology makes it possible for health care professionals to share their knowledge, skills, and expertise. Doctors in different states can collaborate on a case, specialists can conduct online seminars, and hospitals can consolidate patient records for easier access.
- Patient empowerment. Knowledge is power, and thanks to websites, apps, and forums, it has never been easier for someone to understand his condition, ask intelligent questions, or ask for second opinions. While digital technology will never replace face-to-face consultations and laboratory tests, it will enable patients to take a proactive role in their health care.
Challenges and opportunities
Digital health care is still in its early stages, and there are many things that need to be ironed out. This includes health data security, and how to safeguard health care standards and professional ethics in online medical services.
For example, how can patients know that they’re talking to a real doctor? How accurate can a diagnosis be, without a physical exam? How much access can a patient or his family have on medical records?
These are just some of the challenges that the health care industry faces as it marches forward in the information technology age. But one thing is clear: there is no turning back. Digital health is here to stay, and it is only a question of how to make it more efficient, available, and affordable.