It can be difficult to find a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic—infection rates remain high, and people are growing weary of social distancing and digital socializing. In the healthcare industry, challenges are par for the course, and around the world the industry has begun to embrace the technology that so many have relied on since the pandemic began.
According to the results of a global survey conducted by the cloud communications platform Twillo, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated companies’ digital communications strategy by an average of six years. Decades-long roadmaps intended to guide digital transformation were compressed into days or weeks to respond to our so-called “new normal” as the pandemic unfolded. Nearly 75% of respondents in the healthcare industry reported a significant acceleration in digital technologies.
From telemedicine to decentralized clinical trials to artificial intelligence and beyond, read on to learn how the COVID-19 crisis has kicked the use of technology in the healthcare industry into high gear.
Telemedicine is one of the most effective tools to contain the spread of COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, many physicians and healthcare systems began to ramp up their telehealth offerings. As insurance companies expanded their telehealth coverage, telemedicine visits allowed patients—especially those in the hard-hit Northeastern United States—to keep up with routine care.
One early barrier to telemedicine was privacy and data protection regulations related to HIPAA. Earlier this year, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services announced a relaxation in enforcement discretion, allowing providers to use HIPAA-noncompliant private communications platforms to connect with patients.
One article published in the New England Journal of Medicine envisions an even wider scope of telemedicine options for patients in the future. In addition to video visits, potential services might include text, email, phone-based applications, wearable devices, and chatbots—all services that could provide patients with both synchronous and asynchronous care from the comfort of their own homes.
Telemedicine also helps healthcare systems track and contact trace people infected—or potentially infected—with COVID-19. Technology can be used to track these large patient populations daily. Many mobile platforms, including Apple and Google, used an application programming interface (API) to build a COVID-19 contact tracing feature directly into iPhone and Android operating systems, enabling people to participate in contract tracing via their cell phones.
There are some challenges inherent to telemedicine, including care for patients who are acutely ill. Hospital-at-home models are not a particularly new innovation, but these models may need to be adapted to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Another is the barrier of entry for patients who are not technology-savvy or lack access to the internet. Physicians, used to caring for patients primarily in-person, may also be frustrated by the limitations inherent to digital healthcare.
Given the widespread adaptation of telemedicine, though, these tools are likely here to stay.
Decentralized Clinical Trials
Like many other formerly in-person gatherings, the onset of the pandemic made clear that clinical trials were going to need to change—and quickly.
Social distancing, quarantine, and measures limiting local and interstate travel cut patient access to clinical trial sites and the potentially life-saving care they provide. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, including Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Bristol-Myers-Squibb, announced early on delays in enrollment for ongoing studies, and fear of healthcare worker shortages and exposure to the virus halted many non-essential—that is, non-COVID-19—clinical trials in their tracks. According to one report published in Health Affairs, the pandemic may set back non-COVID-19 clinical trial research “by several years.”
Enter decentralized clinical trials. A shift toward a decentralized clinical trial model had already been underway when the pandemic began. Like the use of telemedicine, COVID-19 accelerated the healthcare industry’s need to embrace the change.
Decentralized clinical trials incorporate multiple data collection methods, including telemedicine visits, wearable devices, electronic outcome assessments, and electronic health record use. These trials allow patients to visit local hospitals or healthcare providers, rather than requiring visits to one centralized trial location. One notable positive result from this is that trials for conditions like cancer or rare diseases may increase patient participation and retention.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology is not a new concept in the healthcare space. Currently, AI is used for things like image analysis, diagnostics, and deep learning to power insights for physicians, and AI-powered apps are using the power of the algorithm to guide patients towards the best options for care.
AI applications are also being evaluated for their usefulness in combatting COVID-19. One research study laid out a potential AI-based approach using technology to diagnose the virus, increasing treatment access to patients who need it while limiting potential viral exposure for healthcare workers. AI can be used to analyze both irregular symptoms and other potential red flags quickly, then seamlessly alert the patient and the necessary healthcare team members. AI also has a role to play in contact tracing by identifying and analyzing current and potential future hot spots and viral clusters. Vaccine developers may rely on AI to sift through the reams of data generated by COVID-19 vaccine clinical research.
Perhaps most futuristically, healthcare systems are exploring the use of AI-assisted robotic surgery as a way to allow elective surgeries to continue during the pandemic. In these scenarios, robots act as an additional layer of protection for healthcare workers, allowing greater distance between patients and providers.
Many surgical society safety guidelines have been published since the onset of the pandemic. These guidelines suggest integrating robotic assistance into all parts of the surgical workflow, from preoperative care to anesthesia, the surgical procedure itself, and postoperative care. The use of robotics in the surgery itself is “the ultimate scenario to reduce pathogen spread,” according to one article published in Nature.
Healthcare adapts to challenges presented—while the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest, it will not be the last. The technology-focused changes introduced over the last seven months have, in many ways, improved the healthcare landscape and will continue to improve in the months to come.
We’re reducing the burden of research on the patient—regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity—through the use of mobile technology and connected devices.
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