Years from now, when we reflect on the millions of healthcare professionals that rose to the challenge to fight COVID-19 with bravery, dedication and courage, will we see the pandemic as a turning point when healthcare truly embraced a digital transformation?
COVID-19 has already become a catalyst for change in many ways, accelerating digitalisation across the board and galvanising the nation to find solutions for problems that threatened to overwhelm us. We’ve seen email, telephone and video consultations almost exclusively replace face-to-face appointments, while people flocking online to book testing slots has almost become second nature. This has caused an explosion in the use of healthcare apps and web platforms to check symptoms, stay informed and find new ways to keep fit and healthy, both mentally and physically.
Digital transformation has, of course, been on the agenda of healthcare providers for years. Going back to 2019, the NHS long-term plan outlined its ambition to make digitally-enabled primary and outpatient care a mainstream feature across its practices. It defines a modern, forward-thinking healthcare model, with ‘digital first’ options that would help people manage their own health using digital tools, with face-to-face consultations available when needed.
While the NHS’ ultimate vision for digitally-enabled care is yet to fully materialise, it’s remarkable how quickly this long-term vision has been fast-tracked due to the pandemic. In a matter of months following the outbreak, the national effort to combat COVID-19 saw GP practices and hospitals, and indeed nationwide, adapt with incredible agility to provide a wide range of crucial services, from remote diagnosis and treatment to symptom tracking and online test booking.
It’s clear that health and wellbeing services have had to undergo a rapid evolution as we all adapt to the new normal. This change, which the health service now wants to drive forward, has succeeded in making many services more accessible and more efficient than ever before, even for the most remote or vulnerable of patients. But is our infrastructure up to the challenge of further digitalisation across the entire health service?
Full Fibre – a foundation for digital transformation
For digital healthcare to reach its full potential, we need to ensure we have access to the best possible foundation – hence why the Government has made levelling up connectivity across the country a key part of its ambitions. The more widely available full fibre is, the easier it will be for this momentum towards a digital transformation in healthcare. With the UK set to have 80% of the country covered by gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, now is the time for those within the healthcare industry to start thinking about what that could potentially unlock for them in the form of new digital services.
Just think what could be achieved if next-generation networks were made available at scale? Even as a foundation for 5G connectivity within the community, the benefits to people with a host of conditions could be huge, especially when you consider our aging population and the rise of lifestyle related disease. Take Liverpool’s Sensor City innovation hub, for example, a joint venture between The University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University that develops sensor technologies.
Over the years, the hub has pioneered many technologies that help people to manage long-term health conditions like diabetes and epilepsy from home. Now, through Defproc Engineering, it has developed ‘Push to Talk’ – a loneliness app for isolated carers, which puts them in touch with other carers in a similar position. By keeping us connected at home and on the move, the potential for digital technology, enabled by the best infrastructure available, to improve health and wellbeing outcomes cannot be underestimated.
Of course, in a post COVID-19 world, there will always be a place for face-to-face interaction with healthcare services too. The goal with digitalisation is not to replace this crucial element; it is to enhance it and create choice for people. What’s more, innovation in this space is unlocking new insights into healthcare, making it possible to develop therapies and approaches that could strengthen health and care services in the face of perhaps more, as yet, unknown challenges.
Harnessing analytics, for example, is already proving invaluable in the diagnosis and treatment of various cancers, while data platforms have allowed for rapid research into the spread and risk factors associated with COVID-19. Overseas, Governments and local authorities in a growing number of countries, perhaps most notably in South Korea, have employed smart city technology and sensors and data to effectively collect and share date to trace the contacts of people infected with the virus.
Closer to home, the Newcastle University Urban Observatory has used sensor data to understand the impact of social distancing measures on people and vehicle movement within the city in real time. Using this information, it is then possible to identify bottlenecks where social distancing cannot be maintained, how citizens adapt as restrictions are imposed or lifted and ultimately, prepare for future crises.
This idea of using digital healthcare tools and data as a preventative tool has potential applications on a much grander scale – even to identify and quash future pandemics. Organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) are currently encouraging a global effort to contribute and invest in the Global Digital Health Ecosystem. A key objective in its ongoing discussions with stakeholders will be to agree how to accelerate and adopt these early warning disease surveillance systems.
Building a digital future
At CityFibre, we’re hard at work to bring full fibre technology to towns and cities across the UK. We know that change is constant, and that what we rely on today in terms of infrastructure will not be sufficient in the decades, years, even months that lie ahead.
Designed for the digital age, full fibre networks use 100% fibre optic technology to carry data at light speed all the way from the home to the point of connection – a pristine open highway with no bumps in sight. This gives users consistently faster speeds – for upload and download, near limitless bandwidth and connectivity they can depend on.
The UK Government’s current aim is for every NHS hospital, GP practice and community care service to be given access to full fibre broadband as soon as possible and there are a several towns and cities across the UK, just like Milton Keynes University Hospital (MKUH), which we have already helped make the switch to full fibre.
Ultimately, we want full fibre to be the standard communications infrastructure across the UK; not just for public services, but for citizens and businesses too. This will be a critical element in ensuring communities can use online health services effectively and that the shift to digital healthcare reaches its full potential.
Digital transformation takes countless forms and its application stretches as far as our imagination can take us. With the right enabling digital infrastructure, more technology within our healthcare provision will provide a vehicle for a complete re-imagination of health and care services in communities. One that reflects the challenges, opportunities and priorities of today, whilst helping ward against future threats as they arise.