Meta Description: Discover how the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the digitalization of the health industry, from telemedicine to AI-powered diagnostics. Read on for more.
211% increase in funding.
From $14.4 billion in 2019 to a staggering $44.8 billion in 2021.
That’s how much the global pandemic impacted the digital health industry since its beginning.
When COVID-19 hit back in 2020, many countries were not necessarily prepared for what stood before them.
Everything that we knew, all standard procedures that were second nature to us, all of a sudden were impossible to follow. And the health industry was the one that had to adapt the fastest.
In the following paragraphs, we’ll dig deeper into how the world transitioned from analog to digital health services, what specific steps some of the most powerful countries took, and what the future of eHealth looks like.
The rise of digital health technologies during the pandemic
The global spread of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020 has sent a clear message to all countries around the world:
The health industry must be digitalized, and it has to happen now.
And that’s what happened.
People are the most adaptable animals on Earth, so we get used to new things pretty quickly. But if you think back to 2019, some of the health services we use today were just a promise in most countries.
COVID-19 changed a lot of eHealth services’ status from “Future Developments” to “Must Haves,” and these are some of them: Increased telemedicine services Many countries have expanded their telemedicine services, allowing patients to consult with doctors remotely. According to OECD:
Increased telemedicine services
Many countries have expanded their telemedicine services, allowing patients to consult with doctors remotely. According to OECD:
- In Australia, in the quarter ending September 2020, 13.3% of all 15.5 million Medicare Benefits Schedule services were telehealth consultations.
- In Belgium, there were no teleconsultations at all in January and February of 2020; by April 2020, 44.4% of all appointments were done via telemedicine.
- In Canada, 73.7% of all primary care visits and 63.9% of specialty care visits were delivered virtually in the second quarter of 2020, compared to 1.8% of total ambulatory visits in the fourth quarter of 2019.
- In France, in the first half of 2020, the number of teleconsultations invoiced to l’Assurance Maladie rose from 40,000 acts per month to 4.5 million in April, and during the lockdown in 2020, one in four consultations was a teleconsultation.
Remote patient monitoring
Some countries have also invested in remote patient monitoring, which involves using technology to monitor patients' health from a distance. For instance, a home monitoring app in the Netherlands shortened hospital stays for COVID-19 patients.
Integrating continuous remote monitoring of hospitalized patients in general medical settings with the electronic health record not only enhances outcomes but also automates the task of obtaining and documenting patients' vital signs. This reduces the burden on overworked and underresourced staff, who would otherwise need to perform this task multiple times per day for each patient, thereby increasing accuracy.
Digital health records
Many countries have also invested in digital health records to improve the efficiency and coordination of care. For example, in Spain, the government has launched a platform called "Digital COVID Certificate," which includes the patient's COVID-19 vaccination status, test results, and recovery status.
Data sharing and analytics
Some countries have invested in data sharing and analytics to understand the spread of the virus better and inform public health decisions. For instance, in Germany, the government has launched a platform called "Corona-Warn-App," which collected data on the spread of the virus and provided users with information about the risk of infection in their area.
Although it no longer sends alerts, the Corona warning app used Bluetooth short-range radio to measure close contacts between people and issue a warning should one of them later tested positive for COVID-19.
AI-powered diagnostics have also been developed and used to help diagnose COVID-19 more quickly and accurately. For example, in the UK, the government has invested in an AI-powered tool called "Chest X-Ray AI," which helped doctors identify COVID-19 in patients' chest X-rays.
How COVID-19 made European countries focus on digitizing their health systems
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for greater flexibility, agility, and resilience in responding to public health crises.
In Europe, the pandemic has prompted many countries to accelerate their efforts to digitize their healthcare systems. Here are some of the most notable investments:
UK – Revolutionize NHS care through AI technologies
In mid-2021, the UK government announced 38 new pioneering artificial intelligence (AI) projects to help revolutionize care and accelerate diagnosis:
“Thousands of patients and NHS staff will benefit from dozens of new pioneering projects awarded a share of £36 million to test state-of-the-art AI technology. The projects will help the NHS to transform the quality of care and the speed of diagnoses for conditions such as lung cancer.” NHSX and Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC) are supporting 38 innovative projects, such as:
- an AI-guided tool that aids doctors and nurses in accurately diagnosing heart attacks
- an algorithm for fast-tracking lung cancer detection,
- an AI-powered mental health app that identifies severe mental health difficulties while treating anxiety and depression symptoms
- technology that detects undiagnosed spinal fractures.
Italy – Billions of euros invested in the technological and digital updating of hospitals
The Italian healthcare system's resources and infrastructure were considered inadequate during the pandemic. To address these shortcomings, the Italian Government has developed a Recovery Plan worth EUR 8.6 billion to upgrade the healthcare sector's digital, structural, and technological resources.
The plan provided direct funding to hospitals in two areas: technological and digital updates, and technical, professional, digital, and management training, scientific research, and technological transfer:
- Out of the total budget, about EUR 4 billion were invested in hospitals' technological and digital updating. The goal is to replace obsolete medical equipment by mid-2026
- EUR 1.45 billion was invested in 280 hospitals to improve digitalization across the facilities
- EUR 1.67 billion was invested in strengthening the digital infrastructure of the Italian healthcare system
- EUR 524 million were towards strengthening the treatment capabilities of centers of excellence
Furthermore, the European Union's Next Generation EU instrument provided EUR 750 billion to help countries recover from COVID-19. Italy is the first beneficiary of the two main instruments of the Next Generation EU, with the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) providing resources worth EUR 191.5 billion to be utilized from 2021 to 2026.
Italy intends to use its entire financing capacity via RRF loans, estimated at EUR 122.6 billion. The Italian plan for recovery has six missions, one of which is Health, with a budget of about EUR 15.63 billion. The Health mission comprises two components: proximity networks, facilities, and telemedicine for community care, and innovation, research, and digitalization of the SSN.
The NRRP has budgeted EUR 2 billion for new facilities hosting community services, EUR 4 billion for telemedicine and creating digital infrastructure to care for and treat patients in their homes, and EUR 1 billion for buildings and technology dedicated to community hospitals. The second component of the NRRP aims to upgrade the technological assets of the SSN. It benefits from EUR 9.6 billion from 2022 to 2026, with a focus on digital health, medical equipment, and biomedical research.
Germany – Total digitalization of all hospitals
At the beginning of 2021, the German federal and state governments started offering grants for the digitalization of hospitals per the Hospital Future Act (KHZG).
The Hospital Future Act (KHZG) has infused EUR 4.3 billion into hospital IT to remedy this situation by accelerating the digitization of German hospitals.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic shook the whole world. But if we have to find the silver lining in the worst event of the 21st century, it would be that it woke up all countries about the importance of keeping their health systems up-to-date.
As a result, the future of eHealth looks more promising than ever, as more countries invest in digital health technologies to improve the efficiency and coordination of care.