6 ways technology can help tackle pandemics of the future

By Ritesh Talapatra

COVID-19 brought with it a set of unique challenges that are well documented and at the right time, it might be pertinent for us to look back and figure out the things that we did right and the things that need to improve for us to deal with the next one.
Realistically, technology may not be able to prevent a pandemic from occurring in the future, but it can help us be better prepared by anticipating outbreaks and preventing the spread. It can also help us gain crucial time that the healthcare system may need to prepare and respond. Technology has the power to reach everyone, en-masse or individuals, no matter how remote or how far flung they maybe which gives us that added advantage of being able to make a material difference quicky and effectively.

Here are 6 examples of how digital health solutions can make this happen –

  1. Extend patient reach and access
    COVID-19 gave the health industry a swift and dramatic push into digital and in-home care channels. A study by McKinsey showed overall telehealth utilization is 38 times higher pre-pandemic era. Telehealth technologies can help in reinventing virtual and hybrid (virtual/in-person) care models, with many advantages. They can reduce the pressure on hospital capacity, reduce virus transmission, provide care to more patients than is possible with in-person care, and bring the skills of infectious disease specialists to people living in distant locations. In last year or so consumers have also readily embraced these channels, and for some of these categories, they are now preferring the digital channel over the physical one.
  2. Enhance quality of care
    From web and app-based symptom checkers and triage tools to automated self-scheduling to more efficient data exchange, digital health technologies can create a seamless experience and cut down consumer frustration. Digital health solutions can provide the ability, for an informed and tech-enabled consumer, to research their condition, search and compare providers, look at different prices and select the clinician and the site they want to visit, book appointments and be reminded of different things. This can drastically help reduce the stress on an overburdened health care system and deliver connected experiences that enable right care, in the right setting, at the right time, every time.
  3. Help predict and prepare for health emergencies
    The pandemic also cemented what was a known fact for a long time that precise and actionable data across care settings is the new currency of the health ecosystem. With health care organizations urgently looking for real time population health data to accurately predict the next wave of infections, it became more than evident that we need to break the health information silos and have an open exchange with stakeholders across the ecosystem. By solving for interoperability of data across systems technology can help in seamless exchange of health information that can help create rapid prototypes, make quick discoveries, and better respond to public health emergencies. Also, by utilizing AI-based prediction models, internet-based surveillance technology and remote sensing technology it is now possible to study the current burden of disease at a given time and then predict when and where the next outbreak of an infectious disease may occur. Accordingly, scarce health resources can be allocated and optimally utilized.
  4. Shifts focus from sickness to wellness
    With the rise of wearable technologies and remote monitoring we are now in an era where we can deeply engage patients in their own health and wellbeing. By regularly monitoring an individual’s action, technology can guide their decisions in a way that still preserves and empowers their choices — for example, a wearable device could alert its wearer that he has been sitting for an extended period and that it might be a good time to go for a walk, or that it’s time to start getting ready for bed to get a full night’s rest. Also, identification of high-risk patients based on the patterns observed using AI and a host of individual health record data, environmental variables, and social determinants of health, can allow to create preventive mechanism in a proactive manner thereby reducing the overall impact and cost.
  5. Enhance behavioural health
    Behavioural health conditions were drastically amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic due to traumatic stress, unemployment, and social isolation. Digital health solutions can help in increasing the access to behavioural health services by connecting behavioural health experts with patients at a time and setting of their choice. Using sophisticated analytics, doctors can guide individuals into care and along the path to recovery, including identifying those at risk, connecting them to customized care plans and monitoring their progress. Also, by using tools such as online knowledge repositories hosting content on cognitive behavioural therapy, technology can help engage and support individuals in their own care plans.
  6. Reduce drug discovery time and overall cost of care
    Last but not the least, the process of developing new treatment and medicine is slow — and painfully expensive. It can take decades — and cost billions of dollars — to bring one new drug to market. During the COVID-19 crisis we saw 36 vaccines entered in clinical trials, in a record time frame. This was made possible due to an unprecedented global will and collaboration and use of new age technology solutions. Mankind still faces several intricate diseases such as cancer and chronic diseases which pose a great risk to our communities at large. The recent advances in genomics have created new opportunities for drug makers to reduce time and expense in the drug development process. Similarly, digital health solutions can be used to steer members towards more affordable generics, thereby reducing the overall cost of care.

    The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the great need for digital health solutions in healthcare. To keep pace with the needs of the consumers, healthcare organizations must invest in upskilling or reskilling their workforce in the realm of new age technologies. It is only by empowering and inspiring our future technologists to build innovative digital health solutions that we will be able to help people live healthier lives and help make the health system work better for everyone.

(The author is Managing Director – Optum Global Solutions (India) Pvt. Ltd. The views expressed are solely the views of the author and not of the publisher FinancialExpress.com, the organization and Optum Global Solutions (India) Pvt. Ltd. or any of its affiliates shall not have any liability, whatsoever.)

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