Tuesday 23 March 2021 10:37 am Rewired Talk

COVID-19 forced doctors like me to embrace technology

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Sajjad is a Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon in London

“Would you like to FaceTime him?”.  My Dad suffered from dementia for several years but last year he stopped walking and then eating as a result, and then sadly passed away at the end of November last year.  He was in and out of hospital during the pandemic and none of us were able to go in with him due to the restrictions. Our only direct connection with him, our lifeline, was an occasional FaceTime call.  I had rarely used FaceTime before.  Now it has become my daily way of connecting with friends and family, seeing their happy smiling faces, and yearning for some normality.  It is here to stay.

The year since the first lockdown in March 2020 has been very difficult for us all.  Many things in healthcare and the NHS have also had to change in response, including a much stronger embrace of technology. The pandemic has forced us to harness the power of digital technology in a very short space of time. We now use online consultations to triage patients. I had never even heard of Attend Anywhere before the pandemic, but now clinicians up and down the country know it very well as the secure video call service for patients within the NHS.

The pandemic has also accelerated the digitalization of patient records (EPR). Many doctors, including myself, had been late adopters, preferring the routine of paper medical notes. However, the potential to transfer infection through the manual handling of notes has meant that we have had to resort to electronic recordings of our patient consultations. And when we embraced this evolution, we finally realized its potential. The EPR will make communication with different healthcare providers, including hospitals, GPs and other healthcare professionals much easier and will be better for our patients in the continuity of their care.

The pandemic has also meant that some non-COVID 19 related healthcare provision has been compromised in some way.  I have long been a fan of lean healthcare provision, a process where the patient journey is improved, and waste is minimized.  Our waiting lists will be huge at the end of the pandemic, so as we emerge, we will need to make our processes of healthcare provision much more efficient. We will need to ‘lean up’ as much as possible. And we will need to seek alternative ways of working. This is where artificial intelligence approaches are starting to emerge. Artificial intelligence and robotics are at the leading edge of the digital revolution, and the pandemic has forced us to embrace their adoption, even in healthcare.

Teaching and training is a vital pillar of healthcare where senior clinicians pass on their knowledge and skills to their trainees. The pandemic hindered us to start with – but it didn’t stop us. My Thursday mornings usually involved getting together before clinic and teaching my colleagues or learning from them over a coffee. This has now evolved into online teaching, podcasts and webinars. Zoom and Teams, as with other sectors, have also become household names in healthcare. We have been able to hold teaching sessions with colleagues around the globe on a regular basis, something that was only possible a few times a year after a long flight.  As we hopefully emerge from the pandemic, these things are likely here to stay for our training, in some shape or form.

There is no doubt that the digital revolution is very much here and has been embraced by the healthcare sector. However its full potential and role in healthcare remains to be realised in the coming years. There is no going back. But it must be remembered there are risks that have to be mitigated. Healthcare is an essential component of our society and keeping it confidential and secure is vital. The WannaCry attack on the NHS systems in May 2017 resulted in an overall 6% decrease in hospital admissions due to its effect. Beefing up our cybersecurity capabilities in general and also within healthcare will be essential as we continue our journey with the digital revolution. 

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