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HomeBlogFuture of healthcare: Covid-19 will be the great game changer

Future of healthcare: Covid-19 will be the great game changer

By: Sigal Atzmon
Future of healthcare: Covid-19 will be the great game changer

The positive legacy of this terrible pandemic will be an acceleration of sweeping changes across all aspects of medicine and healthcare. Here’s how I believe it will shape better and stronger healthcare landscapes as soon as 2021.

It’s unlikely that any of us will ever forget 2020, although nearly all of us wish that we could. The Covid-19 virus has wrought devastation to people’s health, wealth and happiness right across the world. It has simply taken the world down.


But like all pandemics, there will be a positive legacy and the medical foundations of this one are starting to become clear. There are many reasons to view 2021 with hope, for Covid-19 is transforming the way that healthcare is delivered and how people interact with it.  


We all know that national healthcare systems are big, inefficient, under-budgeted and ripe for reform. But bureaucratic inertia means that necessary changes can take decades to be implemented.


Covid-19 is luckily sweeping existing structures away extremely quickly, making way for new ones fit for the 21st century. Virtual consultations, for example, are here to stay and surveys show that many people actually like them. Governments clearly understand that they need to invest and reform to build healthcare landscapes that are better prepared and equipped to deal with future crises.


Then there’s human nature. Many of us derive comfort from familiar routines. It can, therefore, take a long time to adopt new habits, even beneficial ones.


Covid-19 has forced all of us to pause our busy lives and rethink our health. Few things are more frightening than realising just how vulnerable we are to ill health and a virus that we cannot control.


As a result, 2020 was the year that medicine went mainstream. Instead of waiting for professionals to provide the answers face-to-face, plenty of people decided to opt for digital solutions, to look up and share information online.


And that’s a good thing. Wanting to understand our health is the first step towards managing it better. More of us will start using digital health tools to make that a reality in 2021.


We’ve already become accustomed to the digital revolution in the way that we shop and conduct our social lives. Health is next and it will be a two-way process.


Personalised apps will enable us able to input our health data and keep tabs on how it changes. Medical providers will be able to see and monitor that data too, remotely interacting with us.


This will also help healthcare systems to pivot away from mainly treating the sick to preventing diseases in the first place. Doctors will not only understand their individual patients better, but society as a whole as well. Pooled data will lead to improved screening, diagnosis and treatments.


Of course, there’ll need to be plenty of safeguards to ensure that data is used wisely and securely. But the pandemic is already demonstrating how people are happy to share information if they believe it’s for the common good.


In the UK, for example, the University of Oxford’s RECOVERY programme enrolled 20,000 hospitalised Covid patients over the course of 2020. Their data enabled researchers to quickly identify the steroid dexamethasone as an effective treatment for serious cases.


The provision of healthcare on demand from the comfort and safety of one’s home was one of the biggest changes of 2020. The other great breakthrough was undoubtedly the development of an effective Covid-19 vaccine within the space of months rather than years.


Speed is of the essence when it comes to treating diseases and the medical establishment now realise that they should try to respond to other illnesses in the same way, while maintaining the equivalent safety and efficacy standards that they did before. They’re also conscious that they should have been better prepared to deal with a crisis like Covid-19 in the first place.


Here’s how this all adds up to change for good:


1. Vaccine platforms


Animals harbour an estimated 1.7 million undiscovered viruses and Covid-19 makes us fearful about which one might cross the species barrier next. Previous vaccines had to be grown from a dead virus, a time-consuming process. But the technologies developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and the University of Oxford/Astrazeneca have changed all that. The three now have technological platforms that can be re-deployed for any virus. Input its genetic code: output a vaccine. 


2. Clinical trials


These take years because phases run sequentially rather than concurrently and there are pauses between each one while trial data is peer-reviewed in a lengthy process, often hidden behind a medical journal’s pay-wall. Last year, more trial data was uploaded to open websites in the form of pre-prints. These attracted widespread comments from the research community, facilitating faster information dissemination.


Scientists are co-operating in other ways too, like never before. In 2020, 15 institutions including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Swiss Data Centre and McGill established a Covid-19 collaboration platform to share protocols and data in a bid to speed up clinical trials and improve their accuracy. Such collaboration is likely to continue with other healthcare needs.


3. Artificial Intelligence


We’ve all heard about Covid-19’s distinctive spike protein, which it uses to bind to human cells. Scientists know that the human body has at least 200 million proteins. They’re the building blocks of life, but we don’t know how many of them function. In 2020, the London-based AlphaFold System used AI modelling to determine a protein’s unique 3D structure. Machine learning will accelerate our understanding of how the human body works at the cellular level, how it goes wrong and what to do when it does. 


Machine learning also provided another major breakthrough in 2020. We may be learning to battle viruses, but what happens if we run out of antibiotics to treat bacterial infections? MIT’s researchers are using AI to find new molecules that can kill drug-resistant bacteria. They found one and called their new antibiotic Halicin after the sentient computer Hal in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.


4. Telemedicine and apps


Fear of contagion has taken doctor’s appointments online and some will stay that way post pandemic given the convenience and ability to service patients in remote locations. But what happens when the doctor needs to conduct a physical examination? New digital tools are the answer.


One Israeli firm, TytoCare, already has FDA approval for its palm-sized product, which patients use to perform examinations guided virtually by a doctor. The app-based device includes an examination camera, an otoscope for the ear, stethoscope for heart and lung sounds, skin scanner and tongue depressor for the throat.  Many other products are coming onto the market. America’s Butterfly Networks has an ultrasound scanner that can be plugged into a phone for example.


So there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2021. Digitalisation will be the great equalizer in healthcare. It will free up doctors’ time, reduce pressure on hospital admissions and provide vital healthcare information and diagnostic tools to rich and poor, city dwellers and remote villages alike, in a safe and more affordable, sustainable way


I am proud to say that these processes will speed up the democratisation of healthcare, reducing unwarranted variations between medical providers, cities and countries.

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