Healthcare in the Digital Age: Supporting innovation after COVID-19

Highlights from the OECD Forum virtual event. (Banner image: Shutterstock/Ilya Lukichev)
Healthcare in the Digital Age: Supporting innovation after COVID-19

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. 

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

Written by Will Duncan and Federico Lampis, OECD Forum Programme.

From finance to education, almost all sectors of the modern economy have reaped the benefits of the digital transformation, improving efficiencies, lowering prices, and providing easier access. Yet healthcare, a surprising analogue outlier, has been slow to embrace digitalisation until now.

These shortcomings were abruptly brought to light with the sudden outbreak of COVID-19. In an effort to minimise face-to-face contact, OECD countries have seen an exponential increase in the provision and uptake of “telehealth” consultations. New services, platforms and more flexible payment systems have quickly become available, supported by high-level political encouragement and urgency procedures. The pandemic has provided a new impetus to harness Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the search for potential COVID-19 vaccines and treatment options, with AI further facilitating faster diagnosis and prognosis, early warnings that can inform and protect front-line hospital staff in treating patients, better surveillance, and more responsive care. The pandemic has also highlighted the need for better real-time data — from clinical visits and national hospital capacity to patients’ medical history and lab testing results.

Against this backdrop, the “Healthcare in the Digital Age” panel, organised as part of the OECD Forum’s 2020 virtual series of policy discussions, brought together a diverse set of distinguished experts to reflect on the sudden uptake of digital health solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and explore what this development might mean for the future of healthcare.

Watch the replay of the Healthcare in the Digital Age session below

More barriers to overcome

The panellists agreed that many of the technologies and digital practices successfully up-scaled at the height of the crisis may be here to stay — and have real potential to improve healthcare. But to realise this potential, a number of structural barriers will need to be overcome.

First, there is no point in rolling out a technology that its recipients do not know how to use. Both physicians and patients must be equipped with the digital literacy skills required to operate and harness the full potential of digital solutions. Angela Spathatou, Partner at McKinsey, has been working with Centres of Excellence to help physicians develop their skills, as our societies have not yet sufficiently invested in digital literacy. She stressed the need to integrate digital skills into medical personnel’s education and train healthcare professionals who are currently practising.

Building up trust in digital tools is critical too. According to Esti Shelly, Director of Digital Health at the Israeli Ministry of Health, patients typically possess the necessary skills to access digital tools, yet choose not to, as digital health is not considered the default option for care. Of course, the pandemic did push — and at times forced — a “digital-first” approach. But maintaining it after the crisis will require shoring up trust in digital tools and ensuring that patients place enough confidence in these technologies for them to become their preferred option for access to care. In this context, Shelly pointed to the role that family physicians can play. An endorsement for digital health from one’s own GP can be significantly more effective than that of the government or experts.

The main barriers to building a twenty-first-century healthcare system are not technical, but can be found in the institutions, processes and workflows forged long before the digital era.

Privacy concerns undermine trust too. Take contact-tracing technology: Stefano Scarpetta, OECD Director Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, reported that in France, only six percent of the population initially downloaded “TousAntiCovid”, the country’s contact-tracing app. Yet, good governance can help us protect privacy and uphold trust, while facilitating data-sharing, as Shwen Gwee, Vice President and Head of Global Digital Strategy, BMS pointed out. Going forward, this will be critical as health data could be misused. In fact, any computational product that reliably predicts the future of a person’s health will be extremely lucrative, raising the need for robust privacy frameworks in the face of monetisation opportunities.

Yet, convincing patients is not enough. Physicians need to be on board too. Like every other big machine, the healthcare system moves slowly, and it can take time for providers to adopt promising solutions. “We’re in a middle period,” said Kamran Khan, CEO & Founder of BlueDot. “Many clinicians don’t feel like there is compelling evidence to move forward” with these new tools, pointing to the need for solution providers to back up their claims with tangible evidence of benefits. 

Lastly, barriers to interoperability continue to hamper the digital transition. Many OECD countries have made progress creating and improving their electronic patient records and healthcare databases in recent years. However, datasets from different segments of a country’s health system are still often unable to communicate with each other electronically. It usually falls on patients and their families to retain their medical history and ensure the right doctor is informed. According to OECD research, the situation remains little better than the pre-digital equivalent.

Cross-sectoral engagement is critical

In the end, the OECD finds that the main barriers to building a twenty-first-century healthcare system are not technical, but can be found in the institutions, processes and workflows forged long before the digital era. Stefano Scarpetta stressed that “a true digital transformation in health will require political leadership”. Digital technologies may provide the tools, but both policy and investment are required to put them to good use. Governments must implement overarching digital health strategies with clear objectives and a comprehensive vision to lay the foundations for a trustworthy, ethical and human-centred digital transformation.

Read the OECD report: Empowering the health workforce: Strategies to make the most of the digital revolution

For Michael Hodin, CEO of the Global Coalition on Aging, policymakers must also nurture an innovative environment. Revolutionary technologies and innovative digital solutions are not born out of thin air, but rather built on the strong foundations of robust public-private partnerships.  

“What I’ve learnt is that each sector has its strength and limitations,” remarked Khan. Universities’ strengths lie in groundbreaking research, but not implementation. The private sector will innovate, but it is government’s role to turn this process into comprehensive policies that benefit citizens. In sum, effective cross-sectoral engagement will be essential.

Maintaining momentum to build the healthcare of tomorrow

The pandemic has proved a powerful catalyst for innovation in healthcare. But as we chart our way out of the crisis, governments must find ways to hold onto the progress we have made and build more efficient, people-centred healthcare systems, optimised for the digital era.

Our panellists pointed to some of the challenges facing policymakers and healthcare providers alike. Promoting digital literacy, addressing privacy concerns, building trust and fostering data interoperability will be crucial if we are to make digital tools a permanent feature of healthcare.

The technology is here. We must act to amplify its reach and ensure that everyone — both patients and medical personnel — can benefit. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a number of significant vulnerabilities in our healthcare systems. It is our common responsibility to now realise the promises of digitalisation in healthcare to help ensure that future crises find us better prepared.

Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate

Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate

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