Healthcare Will Go Digiphysical

Healthcare will go digiphysical

The pandemic has sped up technology adoption in healthcare by three to five years. Both patients and providers have drastically changed their habits. But Covid-19 has also highlighted the paradox that digital isn’t enough.

During the era of social distancing, the way we interact with each other, companies and services is changing. As people were encouraged (or forced) to stay home, barriers to adoption of new technology were almost artificially lowered. Online groceries, pharmacies and retail all experienced unprecedented growth, as did the platforms that enable video conferencing. Something happened to patients and providers too.

Overnight, patients stopped visiting the doctor. However, their medical needs did not go away. New habits formed, as many patients flocked to the digital front doors of healthcare for the first time. Some patients needed help directly related to Covid-19, while the majority of consultations were about the same medical issues as before: diabetes management, ear infection or a bad knee perhaps. Whatever the problem, patients realized they could get their first medical consultation without waiting or even traveling. Perhaps equally important – no risk of contracting, or spreading, the corona virus.

Patients went online

When Wuhan, China went into lockdown, patients went online. According to the Economist, half of the ten million digital consultations that Chinese health platform JD Health sold in February, were first-time online patients. At least a third will continue using the services, according to the company. The rest of the world has followed suit. In March 2020, Norwegian tech news site Shifter reported that digital healthcare providers Kry, Eyr and Hjemmelegene had a three-­digit volume growth year-on-year. Digitally enabled healthcare providers in the US, Sweden and UK reported the same explosive growth. Across the world, many relatively new providers assumed a vital role in primary care overnight. Not because governments asked them to, but because patient needs shifted. Providers and doctors shifted too.

The technology needed to offer a digital front door to healthcare did not arrive in 2020. Smart phones, sufficient network bandwidth, camera and audio technology, security and encryption, and platform technology – all of these components have been around for at least a decade. So how come a pandemic was ”needed” before healthcare changed?

Providers and doctors alike, have traditionally been somewhat slow to adopt new, non-medical technology. While medical knowledge, research and technology has made huge leaps forward decade after decade – drastically improving healthcare outcomes – service innovation has not kept pace. The visit to the doctor’s office has not changed much in the last 20–30 years.

Covid-19 changed this. Doctors and providers were forced to adapt in a matter of weeks. They had to enable patients to get in touch, while at the same time limiting disease spread. In Norway, the doctors’ union used to see digital consultations as a threat, stating that it was outright dangerous to treat any condition without seeing a patient physically. Before Covid-19, 7–12 percent of family physicians in Norway offered video consultations. Six to eight weeks after Covid-19 hit the country, that number went up to 70 percent.

A complex sector

Make no mistake, healthcare is going digital. However, digitization is challenged by the sheer complexity and physical nature of healthcare services. A bad knee still has to be physically examined to be diagnosed. No tech or AI can remove ear wax. The inherent physical properties of medicine and anatomy does not always translate well into ones and zeros. Also, humans are still humans. A physical consultation may enable a richer conversation. Lastly, today’s technology is not equally accessible and may leave the old and fragile behind. For all these reasons, healthcare has to become ”digiphysical” rather than just digital.

Covid-19 has highlighted this paradox. Digital tools have proven useful in advising patients, screening for conditions, and even tracking the outbreak. However, diagnosis rests upon a throat swab and lab analysis. Providers need to offer a digital front door, and combine it with on-demand, physical services (e.g. Covid-19 testing) that meet patient expectations.

Digitization may improve patient outcomes, experiences, and lower costs of healthcare in the years to come. But the rewards may only be reaped if it plays along with the complexity of healthcare, and the biological, physical and psychological nature of medicine. AI may not replace doctors, but doctors who use AI will replace those who do not.

Hopefully, Covid-19 will eventually recede. Previous pandemics always have. But, just like previous pandemics, Covid-19 may have changed healthcare forever.

Nicolai Skarsgård

Nicolai Skarsgård
Doctor and CEO of Hjemmelegene
Years in Schibsted
What I’ve missed the most during the Corona crisis
Golf trips