The coronavirus pandemic has forced the healthcare sector to leapfrog years of digital evolution. As governments and healthcare businesses dug deep to protect frontline workers, improve patient access and ultimately save lives faster, there has been a boom in both digital health development and technology adoption.
In 2020, global venture capital funding in digital health went up 66%, coming to $14.8 billion in 637 deals. Ten digital health categories – including telemedicine, data analytics and mhealth apps – had a record-breaking year for funding. And it was a big year for IPOs too, with six digital health companies raising over $6.2 billion. The UK healthtech sector is now the largest employer in the Life Sciences industry, employing 131,800 people in 4,060 companies. Under new demand for rapid, integrated, digitally enabled healthcare services to fight the pandemic, the industry has taken off – and it’s not going to stop now. In this blog, I wanted to explore how our attitude to digital health changed and what’s needed to take it over the final frontier to mass adoption.
Collaboration as the foundation for innovation
The response to coronavirus had to be rapid. But what started with panic stations to digitise quickly evolved into something far more robust, and far more exciting.
Today, we have a rich and fast-growing ecosystem of digital health providers, cutting across a broad range of sectors including mobile health (mHealth), wearable devices, telehealth and telemedicine, data and analytics, health information technology and health and wellness. Taking a look at some of the fastest growing digital health start-ups in the UK gives some indication of that diversity – there’s Echo (a prescription management app), Babylon Health (an app with video functionality that links patients to doctors on demand), Benevolent AI (which applies AI and ML in genomics to improve research and aid drug discovery) and Doctor Link (an online triage tool developed for the NHS).
Where the pandemic triggered a digital response by need and necessity, we’re now seeing innovation, collaboration and investment that will go beyond Covid-19 and will create a blueprint for change across the healthcare industry as a whole. The acid test of this is government investment. Last September, the government announced that £32m would be invested in six health technology research projects to transform the NHS by 2050 – including innovative projects such as an AI-enabled x-ray scanner to diagnose cancer more quickly and robotic muscles to help stroke patients. This followed an announcement pledging £50m for further investment in AI to improve diagnostics in the NHS.
But it’s not just investors, businesses and the government that needed to get on board to spark change.
Digital health and public approval
The last year has seen a gear shift in not only how the healthcare system is run, but also in individual sentiments towards digital healthcare. To illustrate this, consider that the NHS website more than doubled its annual visits in 2020, downloads of the NHS app were up 912% year-on-year in December 2020, with prescriptions requested through the app increasing by 495% and patient record views rising 321%, and calls to NHS 111 were up 257% between June and November 2020. Where the vast majority of people once accessed healthcare services in person, we became a nation that could, and importantly chose to, access the same services virtually.
This is going to set a precedent. Research published in July 2020 by GSK revealed that now 84% of people in Spain, 77% in the UK, 75% in Italy and 63% in Germany consider it important to take their health into their own hands to relieve pressure on healthcare systems. Consumers have learnt that they can now manage their healthcare remotely, and healthcare systems will need to evolve to those expectations, enabling patients to manage everything from personal records and prevention through to scheduling, diagnosis, choice of services and delivery. If there’s any indication of the direction we’re heading in, it’s this: investment in consumer-centric companies was up 81% year-on-year in 2020.
Consumer adoption of digital health will encourage growth in the sector; something that couldn’t be achieved with government investment and cross-industry collaboration alone.
But the road to next generation digital health isn’t without its speedbumps, and it will require even more investment in infrastructure, ecosystems and access to smooth these out.
In particular, we will need to invest in a robust IT infrastructure with good connectivity that can reach people in even rural areas; cybersecurity and safe data practices to promote trust; interoperability between different systems; data and analytics to promote preventative action and personalised services; and basic, integrated EHR systems to reduce administrative burden and accelerate change. With 57.4% of healthcare professionals responding to a Deloitte survey citing bureaucracy in healthcare as a key challenge, 50.3% citing cost, and 35.8% training staff to use technology, it also seems clear that shifting mindsets will be important to digitisation in healthcare.
It’s also important to realise that there are still some barriers to overcome for mass adoption amongst the general public. This includes improving digital literacy (about 29% of Europeans lack basic digital skills, rising to 70% in retired adults) and ensuring fair and equal access to healthcare, and not just in the development of expensive smart watches targeted at younger, wealthier audiences. And naturally, cybersecurity and data privacy will also play a large role in consumer adoption.
The evolution of healthcare services to digital has been on the cards for a while now, but it’s taken a devastating global pandemic to really catalyse it. Now that the genie is out of the bottle though, I see no way that we will return to the way things were. Digital health has stood up as a huge enabler of fighting a deadly virus, and in the process, shown us how we can be more efficient, more pre-emptive, more personalised and more collaborative. Now it’s up to us – corporate and individual – to take it to the next level.
I think 2021 is going to be another landmark year for digital health, and I’d love to speak to anyone that is playing a part in it. Lorien is part of a network of STEM brands within the Impellam Group, which includes specialists in both technology and life sciences recruitment. Our aim is to dissolve the barriers for recruiting in different areas of STEM and simplify your access to talent. Contact me for more information on how we can help you at firstname.lastname@example.org.