Five COVID-19 tech advances that will change healthcare
The alliance of health and technology has long held huge promise (health tech is second only to fintech in terms of technology revenues in the UK, and funding is at an all-time high in the US). But what once brought benefits to niche pockets of society has been swiftly been adopted into the mainstream, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Throughout the industry, technological advances have been quickly accelerated beyond the prototype stage, and the vast majority have proved successful. Here are five areas that touch both healthcare professionals and the general public, that will change the way the industry works for good.
1. Virtual trade shows and conferences
A major part of the life of a healthcare professional the world over, medical congresses and trade shows were one of the first things to be axed. Attempting to replicate these shows digitally was not the answer. Offer people 15 webinars a day back-to-back and participants will end up checking emails in the background and popping off for breaks.
Canny organisers are paring back their events, requesting contributors distil their slot to a punchy 20-minutes and offering a range of formats which suit lockdown life – using podcasts, Facebook Live and panel events, as well as webinars and teleconferencing. It’s also important to make some content available on demand, so participants can dip in and out over a three-day period, say, and save live-streaming for ‘headline acts’. Considering ways that include gamification, rewards and VR can boost engagement.
Virtual or digital, one thing is clear - replicating the offline conference online is not enough. Brands that adopt a broadcast mentality will be most successful. Think about a news channel approach – offering fewer long speeches and instead using an engaging compere to direct proceedings online.
2. Interactive student teaching
Whereas young doctors used to rely on watching operations side-by-side with surgeons, this is significantly more difficult now and, potentially unnecessary with the rise of virtual operations. Making use of augmented reality (AR) means that medical students can not only remotely observe but also interact with surgeries - for example, clicking on body parts to learn more. Companies like Proximie – who harness transformative technology to offer high quality healthcare and training opportunities, regardless of location - will be part of this future momentum.
3. The rise of virtual triaging
No longer a niche preserve undertaken by the likes of Push Doctor, we are all now experiencing successful virtual triaging in our daily lives. Take my foot injury which was diagnosed last week, for example. It was all done over video with my local GP. She discussed it, looked at the injury on her screen and then proceeded to share links to online articles that we looked at together, helping her to explain it to me virtually and presenting possible treatments. The potential for using this approach further in settings such as care homes, in particular, is clear, provided we all have access to the tech and are comfortable using it.
4. A surge in home testing using tech
Home testing was being adopted long before the crisis, and scale will now follow. Companies are successfully using home UTI tests - where a patient gets a test delivered, pees on a stick and uses their smart phone to ascertain if they have an infection, for example. This method holds huge potential for all sorts of areas.
In the UK alone, we know that A&E visits are already down by 50%, which is a worrying trend. People are showing just how scared they are of surgeries and hospitals and so many won’t seek treatment that could be vital. Home C-19 testing has been important in tackling the virus and the next step is to invest in tech to support all types of home tests to work with our new normal – such as easy-to-use apps and pre-recorded explanatory videos.
5. Medical grade diagnostic kits
As we all continue to take health into our own hands, there’s also an opportunity to go one further and introduce medical-grade diagnostic kits, sending results back for clinicians to review and advise remotely. Communication is paramount here - to ensure people understand what they’re assessing, how to use and transport any equipment correctly. To make these a part of our everyday lives, consumer messaging should be clear and easily digestible; non-technical instruction will be key to success.
Transformative, future-focused health tech has been much talking about over the last decade, with multiple shows springing up to showcase innovation. However, in reality it’s taken a global pandemic in C-19 to bring everything into sharp focus and accelerate our much-needed adaptation. Health tech is finally coming of age.
By Ed Hudson, Managing Director, Create Health
How UiPath robots are helping with the NHS backlog
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many hospitals to have logistical nightmares, as backlogs of surgeries built up as a result of cancellations. The BMJ has estimated it will take the UK's National Health Service (NHS) a year and a half to recover.
However software robots can help, by automating computer-based processes such as replenishing inventory, managing patient bookings, and digitising patient files. Mark O’Connor, Public Sector Director for Ireland at UiPath, tells us how they deployed robots at Mater Hospital in Dublin, saving clinicians valuable time.
When Did Mater Hospital implement the software robots - was it specifically to address the challenges of the pandemic?
The need for automation at Mater Hospital pre-existed the pandemic but it was the onset of COVID-19 that got the team to turn to the technology and start introducing software robots into the workflow of doctors and nurses.
The pandemic placed an increased administrative strain on the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) department at Mater Hospital in Dublin. To combat the problem and ensure that nurses could spend more time with their patients and less time on admin, the IPC deployed its first software robots in March 2020.
The IPC at Mater plans to continue using robots to manage data around drug resistant microbes such as MRSA once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
What tasks do they perform?
In the IPC at Mater Hospital, software robots have taken the task of reporting COVID-19 test results. Pre-automation, the process created during the 2003 SARS outbreak required a clinician to log into the laboratory system, extract a disease code and then manually enter the results into a data platform. This was hugely time consuming, taking up to three hours of a nurse’s day.
UiPath software robots are now responsible for this task. They process the data in a fraction of the time, distributing patient results in minutes and consequently freeing up to 18 hours of each IPC nurse’s time each week, and up to 936 hours over the course of a year. As a result, the healthcare professionals can spend more time caring for their patients and less time on repetitive tasks and admin work.
Is there any possibility of error with software robots, compared to humans?
By nature, humans are prone to make mistakes, especially when working under pressure, under strict deadlines and while handling a large volume of data while performing repetitive tasks.
Once taught the process, software robots, on the other hand, will follow the same steps every time without the risk of the inevitable human error. Simply speaking, robots can perform data-intensive tasks more quickly and accurately than humans can.
Which members of staff benefit the most, and what can they do with the time saved?
In the case of Mater Hospital, the IPC unit has adopted a robot for every nurse approach. This means that every nurse in the department has access to a robot to help reduce the burden of their admin work. Rather than spending time entering test results, they can focus on the work that requires their human ingenuity, empathy and skill – taking care of their patients.
In other sectors, the story is no different. Every job will have some repetitive nature to it. Whether that be a finance department processing thousands of invoices a day or simply having to send one daily email. If a task is repetitive and data-intensive, the chances are that a software robot can help. Just like with the nurses in the IPC, these employees can then focus on handling exceptions and on work that requires decision making or creativity - the work that people enjoy doing.
How can software robots most benefit healthcare providers both during a pandemic and beyond?
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, software robots were deployed to lessen the administrative strain healthcare professionals were facing and give them more time to care for an increased number of patients. With hospitals around the world at capacity, every moment with a patient counted.
Now, the NHS and other healthcare providers face a huge backlog of routine surgeries and procedures following cancellations during the pandemic. In the UK alone, 5 million people are waiting for treatment and it’s estimated that this could cause 6,400 excess deaths by the end of next year if the problem isn’t rectified.
Many healthcare organisations have now acquired the skills needed to deploy automation, therefore it will be easier for them to build more robots to respond to the backlog going forwards. Software robots that had been processing registrations at COVID test sites, for example, could now be taught how to schedule procedures, process patient details or even manage procurement and recruitment to help streamline the processes associated with the backlog. The possibilities are vast.
The technology, however, should not be considered a short-term, tactical and reactive solution that can be deployed in times of crisis. Automation has the power to solve systematic problems that healthcare providers face year-round. Hospital managers should consider the wider challenge of dealing with endless repetitive work that saps the energy of professionals and turns attention away from patient care and discuss how investing in a long-term automation project could help alleviate these issues.
How widely adopted is this technology in healthcare at the moment?
Automation was being used in healthcare around the world before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly accelerated the trend.
Automation’s reach is wide. From the NHS Shared Business Service in the UK to the Cleveland Clinic in the US and healthcare organisations in the likes of Norway, India and Canada, we see a huge range of healthcare providers deploying automation technology.
Many healthcare providers, however, are still in the early stages of their journeys or are just discovering automation’s potential because of the pandemic. I expect to see the deployment of software robots in healthcare grow over the coming years as its benefits continue to be realised globally.
How do you see this technology evolving in the future?
If one thing is certain, it’s that the technology will continue to evolve and grow over time – and I believe there will come a point in time when all processes that can be automated, will be automated. This is known as the fully automated enterprise.
By joining all automation projects into one enterprise-wide effort, the healthcare industry can tap into the full benefits of the technology. This will involve software robots becoming increasingly intelligent in order to reach and improve more processes. Integrating the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning into automation, for example, will allow providers to reach non-rule-based processes too.
We are already seeing steps towards this being taken by NHS Shared Business Service, for example. The organisation, which provides non-clinical services to around two-thirds of all NHS provider trusts and every clinical commissioning organisation in the UK, is working to create an entire eco-system of robots. It believes that no automation should be looked at in isolation, but rather the technology should stretch across departments and functions. As such, inefficiencies in the care pathway can be significantly reduced, saving healthcare providers a substantial amount of time and money.