How governments can build on the use of data and tech in fighting COVID-19

data and technology
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George Atalla, EY Global Government & Infrastructure Leader, explores the effect that COVID-19 has had on the use of data and technology in healthcare

In the last year, many elements of our lives have changed dramatically, from the way that we do our shopping and interact with colleagues, to the way we spend time with our loved ones. As this is a crisis in which health care has been front and centre, booking a video consultation with a doctor or using an app to check for possible COVID-19 symptoms have become second nature for many of us in recent months.

It is a testament to the skill and dedication of our health and social services professionals that this change has felt largely seamless for us as patients, but this is a serious undertaking for a sector which for a long time was reluctant to join the digital revolution. Such a change was far from inevitable, however, and has largely been forced upon the sector over the last year by the extraordinary demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new multi-country study from Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI) and YouGov, sponsored by EY, shows that before the COVID-19 pandemic, just 18% of health and social services (HSS) organizations had managed to embed digital tools into the way they work.

And perhaps that reticence was understandable. After all, if something were to go wrong with the technologies being adopted, people’s lives and welfare would have been at stake.

In recent months, though, providers have had no choice but to switch to digital, to protect their workers and continue caring for patients and vulnerable individuals remotely.

62% of respondents to the study have now increased their use of digital technologies – everything from video consultations to information portals, AI chatbots, mobile apps and social media platforms – to help people protect themselves and their families from the virus.

I was very interested to see evidence of clear benefits already flowing from this new willingness to innovate and adapt. Notably, respondents from across the globe say that quality of experience, access to care and productivity of staff have all improved.

It’s also encouraging that 66% say their staff have quickly adapted to the new tools. This is a clear indication that practitioners’ concerns about loss of human contact have been somewhat addressed – which in turn could mean that buy-in for future projects may be easier to achieve than it has been in the past.

Meanwhile, 59% of HSS organizations report that their operating model has become more efficient since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is crucial, because providers will have to make their budgets stretch further than ever as the inevitable post-pandemic public spending cuts start to bite.

Across the globe, the first vaccines are now being given to those most at risk from the virus. With an end to the crisis in sight, the key question now is whether the sector will continue using its newfound digital solutions. To make sure this happens, it is recommended governments take action in five key areas:

  1. Create the business case for adequate funding and payment incentives.HSS providers need to know that they will be paid for digital care in the same way that they are paid for in-person care.
  2. Focus on user needs. Services should be designed around user needs, not organizational structures.
  3. Support provider adoption and buy-in. Solutions should be user friendly, and training provided to ensure all employees are comfortable with new digital tools.
  4. Promote interoperability and data sharing to unlock actionable insights. Organizations across the wider ecosystem should collaborate to develop national or regional strategies and infrastructures.
  5. Rethink attitudes to risk. Providers need the scope to continue with the innovative approach they have developed during the crisis, while still making safety paramount.

Our health and social care heroes have a new sidekick in the form of these digital tools, and the research suggests that these applications are already providing enormous benefits. But challenges will remain. The entire globe is still feeling the effects of this pandemic, and health and social care sectors will still have patients to care for once we emerge from the crisis. And what about the next pandemic?

There will always be challenges for health and social care, it is the very nature of the sector. But if governments act decisively and appropriately now, they can ensure providers consolidate their newfound digital skills to secure better long-term outcomes for patients and service users, whatever comes next.


The views reflected in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.


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