Professor Martin R Cowie
Professor of Cardiology, Imperial College London
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a rapid and sudden shift to using digital technology in healthcare.
“The doctor will see you now” has taken on a very different meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Virtual” conversations – on the telephone or via a videocall – have replaced more than 90% of patient-doctor appointments since March 2020, when the UK went into its first lockdown.
Accelerating adoption of remote technology
Before COVID-19 hit, only a minority of doctors used remote consultation or monitoring in their daily practice. Although it has been technically feasible to collect health data from patients living in their own homes, through stand-alone equipment or more complex systems, until 2020 this was the exception rather than the rule.
Overnight this changed. With face-to-face contacts being heavily restricted to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19, the only way a patient could get advice or support during the lockdowns was remotely.
As a cardiologist advising people living with heart failure – and with an interest in digital technologies – I had been using remote monitoring systems for years. However, I had always found it hard to convince colleagues (and those who fund healthcare) that such an approach was “better” than our usual system of clinic appointments months apart and urgent admission to hospital if things went wrong.
Virtual conversations – on the telephone or via a videocall – have replaced more than 90% of patient-doctor appointments.
No return to old ways
This has now changed, not only in the UK, but right across the world. It is unlikely we will go back to “business as usual” once the pandemic fades. Everyone now realises it is better to be able to offer a range of options to patients and their families: face-to-face appointments when needed (particularly useful when a new diagnosis is suspected), supplemented by telephone or video calls (which can include, for example, your GP, a specialist, a pharmacist or other allied professional, and family members who may live far away or not be able to take time off work).
This may be more efficient for both professionals, patients and their families, reduce the carbon footprint of hospital visits, and in theory at least allow more frequent and rapid input when required. There are risks of course – a webcam view is not as good as physically examining someone – and it may take longer to develop rapport and trust with someone at the end of a phone rather than face-to-face. But as we all have realised in lockdown – when times are hard, we have to adapt.