Pandemic paves way for innovative hybrid healthcare

While the heroic abilities of the NHS have been on display throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the last year has also exposed the longstanding limitations and frailties of our underfunded healthcare system, says Maya Ward.

With an estimated 100,000 unfilled posts and staff turnover expected to increase due to emotional exhaustion, the health service’s workforce stands to be further stretched by an ageing population. By 2030, one in five people in the UK will be aged 65 or over – individually costing the NHS 2.5x more than the average 30-year-old.

However, a wave of private investment is flowing into the sector. We are seeing a new type of hybrid healthcare system emerge, where the sizeable supply-demand disparity is being partly alleviated by innovative enterprises accelerating the structural shifts brought forward by the pandemic.

Major crises are often the catalyst for innovation. Just as the Great Fire of London taught city planners to build smarter, more resistant urban environments, COVID-19 could help shape a more efficient healthcare system.

 

“Patients have also adjusted to digital services and are now accustomed to telephone or video appointments and medical tests arriving via post”

 

Catalysed by COVID

While healthcare has previously been a laggard in technological take up, the pandemic has accelerated both the adoption and proliferation of digital healthcare solutions. The opportunity for modernisation has received the buy-in of healthcare professionals, who witnessed the practical application of digitalisation first-hand during the pandemic, with remote appointments enabling the health system to remain open and often saving healthcare professionals substantial time.

Patients have also adjusted to digital services and are now accustomed to telephone or video appointments and medical tests arriving via post. This was facilitated by the NHS, which eased procurement journeys supporting the adoption of new technology.

The digitalisation of the healthcare system should provide much needed efficiency as well as support better outcomes. For example, tools to help triage patients or request upfront diagnostic tests should help ensure face-to-face consultations only occur where necessary and when GPs have sufficient information to provide a  meaningful consultation. Taking some strain off GPs should also make the profession – which has seen a drop in new entrants – become more attractive, further mitigating the healthcare provision gap.

Tech-enabled diagnostics and imaging tools should also help ensure greater standardisation and better outcomes for patients. There is a significant shortage of radiologists in the UK, but tech platforms that utilise artificial intelligence to carry out initial screenings of an MRI or CT – which are then verified by a radiologist – better leverage healthcare professionals’ time and often provide more consistent outcomes.

As a result, we should see the lines between primary and secondary care blur, with technology facilitating more joined up care provision in local ecosystems, involving pharmacies and community care providers, and many digital providers straddling the primary/secondary lines. In this way, digitalisation should actively support the move towards integrated care systems.

Firms at the forefront

These emerging hybrid healthcare solutions could offer a significant investment opportunity, especially the digital healthcare software and services companies leveraging technology to better support clinical outcomes. This is about ensuring patients access the right support in the right format at the right time.

For example, companies like eConsult are becoming market leaders in digital triage services to GP surgeries. With growth accelerating as a result of the pandemic, eConsult now has a c.50% market share and covers more than 3,300 GP practices. Developed by clinicians, the service enables the remote closure of c.70% of cases – hugely advantageous in optimising resource and capital allocation. Its recent acquisition of Q doctor, a video, telephone and SMS platform, ensures that patients requiring a consultation can do so via a range of mediums.

Another example is Kooth, an online mental wellbeing provider. It acts as a digital support community for those suffering from mental health issues, offering discussion boards, one-to-one messaging with mental health professionals, and informational articles and tips. With one in four people experiencing a mental health problem each year in England, private applications such as Kooth could help alleviate some of the pressure placed on healthcare systems.

While a hybrid healthcare system can improve outcomes for patients and better leverage time-poor healthcare professionals, a long-term approach is vital.

About the author

Maya Ward is associate director at Gresham House Ventures – a specialist investment firm focusing on digitally-driven businesses in the healthcare, consumer and services sectors.