Can digital tools support public healthcare beyond the pandemic?

Covid-19 has given public healthcare the opportunity to rapidly evolve its use of digital technology. But what role should digital play in the future?
Person typing on laptop with stethoscope

With the rapid evolution of digital use during the pandemic, many are questioning the expanding role digital plays in public healthcare delivery. Do digital tools have a greater role to play in the future of healthcare provision? If so, what should that role be?

Digital use pre-pandemic

Before coronavirus, digital technology was already being used by public health bodies to provide people with a range of services aimed at improving choice for the individual and outcomes for populations as a whole. From easy access to patient records and appointment booking, to the ability to monitor the impact of public health outcomes and respond to emerging issues, digital tools have provided a range of ways to support public health provision.

What has changed?

The belief that digital technology is positively disrupting healthcare systems is not new. The pandemic has held a microscope against global healthcare systems, affording us a focused view of strengths and areas to improve upon. However, digital solutions have provided healthcare systems with advantages that did not exist 20 years ago.

Digital is being used to further support primary healthcare services. Examples include:

  • Gathering large amounts of virus data empowering researchers to develop better vaccines and mitigate future risk
  • Deliver mental health support to more people who are unable to leave their homes
  • Provide information and tools for people to better manage their health away from traditional healthcare settings

Digital: Disruptive or Innovative?

The challenges

Covid-19 has disrupted human life on a global scale. The virus has highlighted social and economic inequalities with availability of online access disproportionately affecting lower-income areas. The number of people able to access face-to-face forms of mental health support dropped significantly throughout the pandemic. The NHS, public and 3rd sector providers have moved to meet demand, but many remained inevitably isolated and unable to access support quickly.

The potential

With the move to the ICS model of commissioning, digital systems may help providers proactively commission services that provide more options for the public. Empowering staff to feel comfortable using digital technology is therefore essential to any healthcare strategy.

The Health Foundation published Switched On in June 2021. The report asks how we can get the best out of digital automation and AI in public healthcare. It reveals that NHS and local authority figures already familiar with how digital tech can help, were more positive about the role digital can play beyond the pandemic. This is highlighted by the role digital already plays in providing additional mental health support.

“Helping people to map their own journey and being able to keep a check on how you’re feeling and monitor what you’re doing, that’s good practice and makes it something you don’t just refer to in times of crisis.”

Liz Johnston, Public Health Specialist at Blackburn with Darwen Council

Speaking about the use of Togetherall by residents in the Blackburn and Darwen areas.

Can digital offer more choice in healthcare provision?

Existing digital mental healthcare support services and tools are already creating more choices by providing people with 24/7 access to support alongside existing 9-5 provisions.

The public mental health reality of a post-pandemic environment is also a consideration. Creating digital-first services, already a pandemic priority, may become a post-pandemic reality as people struggle to re-socialise following extended periods of isolation and anxiety. Digital tools like Togetherall, may be able to assist, providing continued online support as people begin seeking offline connection and help.

Where does healthcare go from here?

Digital services should not replace existing healthcare provisions. Like any useful tool, digital can be used to enhance and expand existing healthcare services. The technology works best as one arm in a blended approach, augmenting healthcare provision and making it more readily accessible. Creating a digital-first service that meets a variety of user needs is possible. Only one question remains; how do you view digital as part of your healthcare provision now, and in the future?

Find out more about Togetherall’s work with ICS and healthcare commissioners.