This much virtual health care wasn’t intentional, but experts say it may be here to stay

TORONTO — During the pandemic, the way health care was delivered was forced to change abruptly, with more integration of telehealth, virtual check-ups, remote bookings and even new concepts such as at-home kits for patients to collect samples for laboratory testing.

According to experts, these type of innovations are likely to stay in use even when the pandemic is over, showing the kind of collaboration between the health and tech industries that could help improve care across the board.

Speaking on Tuesday at Collision, an annual tech conference that has gone virtual due to the pandemic, Dorry Segev, professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland, explained that in the past, every new development in health care was carefully considered and implemented slowly.

“We’ve learned that it is possible […] to build the airplane while we fly it,” he said, praising “the speed and nimbleness by which medicine changed during the pandemic.”

He described a situation that may have been common not so long ago: a person in a rural area driving more than an hour to reach health care, and then having to wait even more hours to see a busy doctor swamped with patients.

This type of system may soon be gone as we move forward, he said. Although in-person health care will never be replaced, we’re learning that many aspects of the process can be done in more than one way.

“We’ve learned that you can do your appointments remotely, you can view your laboratory results remotely,” he said.

He added that laboratory samples can be taken at home as well and then sent into laboratories for testing, all strategies that can streamline the healthcare process.

Kathleen Gallo, chief learning officer at Northwell Health in New York, said at Collision that “we’re planning for the next 10 years based on what we’ve learned.

“How do we move to virtual care, virtual office visits?”

She added that one possibility with virtual consultations is the opportunity for multiple clinicians to interface with each other and the patient at the same time, “co-ordinating that patient’s care,” instead of the seemingly endless process of being referred to new specialists and having to wait for those appointments.

An increase in virtual interactions also requires health-care workers to learn new skills, she said.

“There’s this concept called ‘web-side’ manner,” Gallo explained. “It’s a learning process for clinicians to be able to think about caring for the patient through the computer.”

Segev pointed out that for patients with chronic pain, things like more widespread use of virtual appointments and at-home care could be hugely positive and cut down on the toll to their bodies and lives.

“Technology [can help] bring medicine to the patient, rather than bringing the patient to the medical system,” he said.

As we look towards the future, the question is how tech can be further integrated into the health-care system.

“There is a huge opening for the tech world here,” Segev said. “With the exponential boom of technology, we are seeing an exponential application of medicine and technology.”

One of the challenges will be ensuring that technological solutions are focused “into things that will actually make a difference,” he said.

“I definitely have encountered many startup companies who think they understand what’s happening in medicine […] but are developing solutions for problems that don’t exist.”

An example he gave is that if artificial intelligence could be programmed to be almost as smart as a good radiologist, that might be a waste of time and resources when a human being will always do the job better. But implementing some artificial intelligence to run scans or process information overnight while the radiologist is sleeping might be more helpful.

There may be a generational gap where younger people moving into healthcare may understand technology more than their older counterparts, he said.

“There is a new group going into medicine that is actually tech-development savvy.”

Although the pandemic has placed health-care systems under enormous stress, it has also proven that there is innovation and resilience there, and that change can happen faster than previously thought. And experts are expecting to see more innovation coming.

“Technology is here to stay,” Gallo said. “I don’t think you’ll get a lot of hands to say ‘OK, let’s go back to the old ways’.” 

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