When COVID-19 first emerged, it changed the norms of citizens' daily lives worldwide within a matter of weeks. Implementation of government regulations, lockdowns, and other precautions to slow down the disease spread and keep society safe have entirely altered how various services are provided.
One of the core concerns worldwide is the challenge of maintaining the safety and well-being of staff and keeping up the quality of care due to pandemicrelated restrictions.
Other challenges faced include:
- Meeting the demand for services
- Providing the services based on current workforce capacity
- Adapting quickly to constant policy and regulatory changes.
In particular, there continue to be numerous healthcare-related challenges as the pandemic continues. Although the current delivery of medical-related services remains an obstacle, digital technologies and data solutions have addressed many of the top challenges across industries.
With that being said, the new normal digital health agenda will probably be narrowed down to three core areas:
- Developing remote care
- Coping with the pandemic's financial impact
- Accepting the lessons, we can learn from crisis management.
The volume of telehealth visits in Singapore had increased from 23 per cent to 30 per cent in 2020 when COVID-19 first emerged. This is because most Singapore residents are getting more concerned about visiting the clinics in person for fear of being exposed to the virus.
With new variations of COVID-19 still emerging, there will likely be an increase in digital health usage. Moreover, patients' expectations of the telehealth service are ever- increasing because a return to usual business is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Hence, although providers may become comfortable delivering the care via technology, they may find themselves hard-pressed to sustain this level of use permanently. This is because the technology and operational workarounds used may not be robust enough to meet the demands.
Now that remote care is the new norm, health systems should build a steady, permanent bridge to address the organisational, financial, and clinical structures and processes.
The health system will have to implement digital health elements in medical aspects such as online health records, clinical protocols towards telehealth visits, getting reimbursed for telehealth visits, and changing hospital and doctors' practice processes to support the digital health implementation.
For example, they would have to create a system on waiting rooms and convert them to virtual waiting rooms to accommodate telehealth visits. While doing so, they should also ensure that they provide care in the proper setting and create a fantastic experience via the "digital front door".
Delivering care in the proper setting
Quality is the most critical factor in healthcare. For this reason, health systems should ensure that the patients are cared for in the most suitable environment.
For example, healthcare providers should figure out the best way to turn care from emergency rooms that would usually belong in a doctor's office to remote care. They should also think about the feasibility of managing chronic care via home health services to reduce visits to the doctor's office.
One instance would be the Home Recovery Programme1 should you be diagnosed with COVID-19. Instead of going to the hospital, patients with milder symptoms can now stay at home and use telehealth to access consultations without the need to travel to the clinic or hospital.
Creating an excellent patient experience
With the pandemic, consumers now heavily rely on digital technologies for many of their everyday activities. For example, working from home is the default. Meals are delivered through Grab Food or Food Panda, and items are now delivered through Qoo10 or Amazon.
Because of the efficiency of these services, there will be expectations that the digital health experiences will be equally effective, if not even more so.
To meet the criteria of a quality digital health service, health systems need to enable patients to handle routine interactions conveniently and efficiently, such as scheduling online medical consultations in Singapore, paying bills, finding doctors, refilling medications, and navigating the health application itself.
While most health systems offer these capabilities, there is always room for improvement in easy navigation and excellent performance in the app.
The definition of "value-based care" has been challenging because the cost-benefit perspectives for each involved party are different. After all, the description is subject to individuals' preferences and objectives.
Nevertheless, "value-based care" to healthcare providers may stem from revenue improvements and reductions in operating costs. Many health systems will focus their resources on value-based care and provide health plans to emphasise them to address the revenue challenges.
For instance, health systems should increase investments in several digital health capabilities:
- Analytics that examine factors such as disease, insurance coverage, and doctor to identify the quality of care and overall costs after reimbursement
- Support for care managers who guided the patients' care processes across various providers and services
- Patient registry with chronic disease to help the health system ensure the condition is being well-managed across the population
- Remote patient monitoring and other technologies that will help with health monitoring
Besides managing the revenue within the pandemic period, health systems should also reduce costs and limit budgets. To do so, health systems should seek opportunities to apply digital health tools that can ensure the smooth running of clinical and administrative operations.
Improvement of electronic health record usage should continue to ensure information can be entered correctly.
The digital health function may be pressured to operate with fewer resources to reduce expenses. Hence, the efforts made would be:
- Consolidating multiple technology applications to one
- Using cloud servers to host applications
- Optimise performance of existing applications through upgrades, reengineering clinical workflows, and conducting refresher training on application usage
- Leverage vendor capabilities to virtually support implementations
The permanence of aspects related to pandemic crisis management
When the pandemic was at its peak, health systems were forced to increase their decision-making speed drastically. This is so they could combat challenges such as personal protective equipment shortage, high usage of ICU (Intensive Care Unit) beds, and protocols to protect staff. At the same time, they would provide safe treatment for patients.
The crisis also resulted in rapid experimentation of new ways to manage clinical and operational processes. During this time, digital health systems discovered new ways to do telework, implemented chatbots to respond to health-related questions and concerns, and collaborated to give treatment across the country.
The results from this pandemic should not be shelved once the pandemic subsides. Instead, health systems should solidify the results gained from their organisational capabilities.
The most prominent impact on the health systems' digital plan is acceleration. Before the pandemic, most health systems may already have the concepts to continue developing telehealth, implement apps that support quality care, improve the patients' healthcare experience via "digital front door", and lower care delivery costs. However, it's likely put on the back mind until the pandemic hit.
Due to the pandemic, what may have taken a decade to accomplish would hypothetically be shortened to three years. Now that digital health is quickly developing and is on the front line, it has become a strategic partner to health systems worldwide.
Digital health solutions and technology will continue to play a vital role in optimising processes and systems to improve efficiency and enhance outcomes with lower costs.
While this pandemic has cost us lives, jobs, and a sense of normalcy, we still have the power to decide the future. After all, it has pushed healthcare workers to take faster action, work smarter, and a higher-focused approach when making decisions.
Challenges that digital health providers may face
While digital health companies are rapidly expanding, providing plenty of job opportunities, they face many challenges.
These include consumers' hesitation to switching from face-to-face to digital healthcare, the effectiveness of online consultation compared to a physical consultation, the availability of high-speed internet and devices, the development of managing processes and spam calls, and patients' data privacy.
Moreover, digital health should accommodate the patients who could not access these services easily or those in dire need of a physical examination.
For instance, patients with acute illness or in need for lab tests would have to make a physical visit to the clinic. Moreover, healthcare providers should develop a secure verification system to ensure that the patients do not accidentally share confidential information with unverified individuals.
In Singapore, the digital health providers have also faced challenges to keep up with the demand surge for services during the pandemic. As a result, consumers have to wait longer to consult a doctor online in Singapore, leading to a reduction of the quality of healthcare.
Hence, policymakers will have to take a measured approach regarding the sector development. Because the government has the right to steer this dominant sector and exercise a large control over it, this has to be considered while healthcare providers assess the potential of a digital health aspect, such as telemedicine.
Continuing to gear up for the future
The adoption of digital health in Singapore has mimicked the high transmission of COVID-19. After all, the usage of digital health-based services has considerably increased, with frontline workers such as healthcare employees banding together to use everything they've got to fight back against the crisis. Therefore, digital health is here to stay due to its far-reaching influence.
In time, digital health may make way for new models and "go-to" providers. After all, the digital health acceleration resulting from the pandemic has shed light on the crucial unmet needs by the healthcare systems and where digital innovation can generate the most value.
The healthcare and technology sectors need to proactively stay ahead in this constantly evolving digitalised world. Pursuing new operating systems concepts can enable fundamental advantages, such as lower costs of services and better access to patients.
In this post-pandemic world, the consensus is that we should not revert to the previous healthcare delivery methods. On the contrary, we should continue supporting digital health tech innovators to create and develop creative solutions to tackle our country’s most prominent healthcare problems.
After all, new technologies would open the chance to provide better outcomes and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps they may even ensure that cardiac and stroke patients receive faster diagnosis and treatment.
It’s our hope and vision that healthcare providers will continue to adapt, embrace and experiment with new technology so that digital health will continue to bring in positive improvements in the years to come.
MyCLNQ Health has developed the MyCLNQ app, the leading app for telemedicine in Singapore, as part of embracing digital health ecosystem. With this, you can access private ambulance services in Singapore to receive the medical assistance you need without having to leave the comfort of your own home and virtual supervised ART testing.