The rapidly-increasing importance of technology in healthcare has previously been forecast in compelling statistics, with the UK digital health market predicted to rise in value from $4 billion in 2017, to $28.3 billion by 2025. Yet the accelerated upward trajectory of medtech during Covid-19 could be exceeding even the most ambitious expectations for the sector. As coronavirus continues to throw up all manner of healthcare challenges, a proliferation of new software is helping to provide some of the solutions. Healthtech startups have sprung up for every area of need over the course of the pandemic, or scaled up existing offerings to meet sudden surges in demand. Some platforms are serving to make life easier for patients and carers; others for frontline workers themselves.
As the UK’s ongoing PPE equipment shortage creates desperate conditions for medics needing protection against coronavirus, the Doctors’ Association UK have launched an app to help NHS staff access masks, gowns and protective eyewear. With a serious deficit in PPE protective clothing, doctors and nurses have been photographed wearing aprons made from binbags, plastic bags on their heads, and swimming goggles in place of appropriate eye protection. The DAUK app helps to highlight where shortages are located and saw hundreds of anonymous reports in the first fortnight. The findings revealed that 77% of hospitals and GP practices have a shortage of long-sleeved gowns, while 72% of doctors are unable to acquire FFP3 masks essential to their safety. Plus, 43% are unable to consistently access a visor or goggles, as the government cites logistical issues.
With an urgent need for digital adoption during the coronavirus crisis, here are four key medical technology innovations which are transforming healthcare as we know it.
Remote / Digital Medical Appointments
Facetiming with your doctor is verging on being a new normal, with companies such as Accu RX showing a huge increase in demand for digital medical appointments. After building and launching their video-calling feature over one weekend in March this year, they almost doubled the amount of medical practices using their software to 6,900. The first 3,500 had signed up over the previous two years, when the tech’s previous incarnation offered one-way delivery of information to patients via text, such as test results and appointment reminders.
Digital healthcare provider Livi also reported a 107% increase in consultations, which are all provided remotely to the NHS and throughout Europe via their app, in a six-week period from February to March. Of those consultations, patients with ‘viral symptoms’ saw a 240% uplift. Livi’s original plan for “steady measured growth” was quickly replaced by a need to meet the demands of overnight expansion surpassing all former prospects. They are now looking into enquiries from further afield, including the US and New Zealand.
The 2012-founded Dr Doctor, which automates medical appointments, has seen a similar success story of late. After refocusing all their efforts following the coronavirus outbreak, building functions to help support the increased strain on the NHS, their new broadcasting tool for hospitals was quickly deployed to reach 150,000 patients in just three days.
The ramifications of self-isolation brought an immediate and unprecedented need for changing access to prescriptions on a mass scale. With GPs having moved away from non-urgent appointments early on in the pandemic, and many people unable to leave home to get to a pharmacy, platforms such as Echo are helping patients to get the medicine they require. Their home delivery service for repeat prescriptions saw a jump in users from 106,000 in mid-March, to 150,000 over the next few weeks. The newly-augmented team are working around the clock to deliver up to 20,000 orders per day.
So what are the implications for neighbourhood pharmacies? While prescription delivery solutions could be seen as a threat to the business of face-to-face collections, the current situation has shown that it is instead a much-needed complementary service.
With the highly contagious nature of coronavirus, and so many unknowns still being researched, self- identification of symptoms has become essential in the absence of mass testing or access to GP diagnosis. A handful of new releases have been breaking new ground in providing users with approved information, allowing them to check and track their symptoms.
Babylon Health's Covid-19 Care Assistant is one such example, providing up to 10,000 AI consultations per day. The app, which already saw huge success with its GP at Hand video call service with doctors, launched its latest offering in March as the virus began to peak. It connects users with clinicians via live chat and video interaction, to help preserve doctors’ time until absolutely necessary.
Symptom-tracking platforms not only provide users with vital, medically sound information to significantly relieve the strain on the NHS, but they also allow the capturing of critical data.
The Covid Symptom Tracker App, developed by researchers at King's College London, has captured over 350,000 entries which show likely Covid-19 symptoms in users. This data is invaluable in creating a real-time picture of the disease’s behaviour across geographical locations. Researchers can assess the changing situation and predict testing needs, as well as glean insight into lesser-known symptoms. More than 2.4 million people had downloaded the Covid Symptom Tracker App at the end of April.
The NHS are currently developing an app which keeps users informed on their risk level of developing coronavirus. It will work by sending an alert to the user’s phone when they have been in the vicinity of someone diagnosed positive for Covid-19. The NHS’s digital innovation department NHSX opted out of a software model proposed by Apple and Google, who wanted to help the UK’s coronavirus contract-tracing app avoid the same performance issues as apps in other countries.
The tech giants had pushed a decentralised approach, which would also prioritise greater privacy by allowing alerts to happen solely within the handset. The NHS software favours a centralised solution, where user data is stored on a computer server. The former seeks to limit individual tracking and social interactions by authorities and hackers, as well as preserve battery life; but the NHSX believe the centralised system will allow them to better monitor the virus’s spread and adapt as needed.
The NHSX app is planned to be launched within weeks, with collaborator Professor Christophe Fraser advising that it will require usage by 60% of the population to be effective. The ultimate goal is to prevent another wave of the epidemic after lockdown ends.