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How technology can help primary care emerge stronger from a second wave of Covid-19

Mark Davies IBM
By Dr Mark Davies
5 November 2020

Dr Mark Davies, chief medical officer for IBM and Watson Health EMEA, discusses how primary care can use technology to help recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the UK enters a second period of lockdown, there is widespread public concern over the impact on the NHS. While great progress was made in the summer, there is still a backlog of non-Covid care created by the first wave. The wellbeing of healthcare workers who have been fighting so hard to protect the public is also front of mind as we approach a winter with Covid-19.

Healthcare workers across the country have continued to work at a punishing pace, often adapting the traditional way they work and quickly introducing new forms of technology. It’s an incredibly challenging time for everyone in the primary care system.

To prepare for the second wave we need to assess the impact of the first wave.  An Ipsos MORI online poll of over 2,000 UK adults aged 18-75 commissioned by IBM sought to quantify the scale of the backlog and challenge that lays ahead for the NHS. The findings uncovered that public concern around Covid-19 had led to a significant amount of people delaying their routine and time-critical appointments.

Among those who needed routine treatment between March and 3 July, the data found that a significant majority (76%) of respondents claimed that either they personally delayed or cancelled treatment (31%) or had their treatment delayed or cancelled by their healthcare provider (48%).

Similarly, for those who needed treatment for new or recently changed conditions, two-thirds (65%) of those surveyed said that either they personally delayed or cancelled treatment.

Primary care is ‘open for business’…

Despite public concerns, UK healthcare services are very much up and running. Indeed, NHS Digital estimates that as many as 26.7 million GP appointments took place in September, 20% more than in August. The suggestion that practices are closed or only seeing Covid-19 patients simply isn’t true.

According to our research, despite the challenges at the outset of the pandemic, the NHS achieved outstanding outcomes. The overwhelming majority (85%) of respondents said they were able to get some or all of the treatment they required during this period. Less than a third (29%) claimed they had found GP services harder to access since March, and only 10% found pharmacy services harder.

…but stepping up to the challenge

As primary care networks work in interrelated disciplines and services, pressure on one part can show up elsewhere. To prevent any kind of domino effect, support is needed urgently across the system.

So, where can PCNs look for this support and enhanced flexibility?

We believe that technology has a major role to play. Even before the pandemic we saw how healthcare has been changing, with more and more patients wanting an integrated and personalised continuum of care. Many PCNs are now needing to rethink and redesign healthcare by utilising digital capabilities to help build trust in patients and ensure they have access to trusted information.

A number of industries have already begun to enable greater innovation through embracing digital technologies to create more agile ways of working, using a combination of artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT) and cloud technologies. However, up until now, healthcare has introduced new digital technologies in order to improve existing pathways and delivery models. There is now a real commitment to reimagine healthcare and drive user-centred design to improve health management, productivity and trust amongst patients with PCNs.

As we have seen with the advent of virtual consultations, patients stand to benefit a great deal from new digital solutions. While our research suggests use has so far been limited, with only 12% of respondents accessing healthcare services digitally, there is significant support for greater emphasis on remote consultations in primary care. A majority (58%) said they would prefer this part of the healthcare offering “only” or with a mix of in person consultations. Nevertheless, the agility offered by new technologies can help.

Over the summer, we have seen the NHS go above and beyond to provide extra support for key workers and patients by introducing new technologies, such as virtual agents powered by AI. But another way technology can contribute to primary care productivity and outcomes is by proactively harnessing data to enable a more personalised model of delivery.

Traditionally data is often fragmented and trapped within the part of the organisation that generated it.  The Covid-19 outbreak has helped break down many of the data barriers that existed between healthcare organisations. By optimising its use of data, the NHS has an opportunity to create an agile, learning health system, capable of tangible improvements every day. However, we must ensure we do this safely and securely.

Maintaining the confidence and trust of patients and staff is key to continuing the digital healthcare shift that Covid-19 has accelerated. As we move towards a more distributed, virtual model of delivering healthcare services, data no longer needs to be tied to a building, and can capitalise on the speed and agility of being held on a cloud.

Embracing technology for improved outcomes

By helping ensure that clinicians can focus exclusively on the things only they can do, these developments will enable PCNs to make the best use of their most precious and scare resource: their professional staff.

When we talk about outcomes, however, it’s important to remember that healthcare providers are only part of the solution. Self-care, and ensuring that we look after ourselves, is just as critical. Nevertheless, and as backed-up by our findings, we believe that a true digital transformation in healthcare will help the country to both recover from the pandemic, as well as improve future outcomes for patients, primary care providers, and the wider NHS.

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