After COVID-19, what will be our new reality?

Guest Authored by Jeroen Tas, Chief Innovation & Strategy Officer and member of the Executive Committee of Royal Philips

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we must continuously rethink and rework the way we do things. Agile innovation will be a new reality, with telehealth (virtualized care) as a key domain.

The past several months Philips responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. We worked with customers around the globe on developing telehealth solutions to support front-line care professionals. New solutions to screen and monitor patients at home with the aim to lower the burden on primary and first aid care and avoid unnecessary load on hospitals. We have installed critical care clinical operations centers to balance the load and expand the reach in monitoring patients beyond the walls of the hospital. Emerging insights in disease and updates on diagnosis and treatment protocols require the exchange of patient data related to COVID-19 and co-morbidities. We have contributed to the launch of a COVID-19 data exchange portal that connects providers to support patient transfers. As always, we closely worked together with care professionals, regulators, and ecosystem partners and I am proud to say that while doing this we were able to rely on decades of experience in telehealth based care and guidance.

Out of necessity, COVID-19 has compressed time, “long term” has become “short term”. It has reduced the development cycle and regulatory approvals for new solutions from years down to months or even weeks. Dealing with COVID-19 has also taught us other things. It’s shown that resistance to change can be overcome when there’s a clear and present need to do so. That collaboration rather than competition helps to resolve complex healthcare problems. That digitalization, data sharing and artificial intelligence – three key elements that underlie next-generation telehealth – can not only improve the patient experience by enabling precision, personal, predictive and proactive care, but also improve staff experiences through better resource allocation, more efficient workflows, and greater support and knowledge sharing.

These realizations are not new. We have long recognized them as key to addressing pressing global health challenges such as the aging population, chronic disease, escalating healthcare costs and universal access to care. It’s just that COVID-19 has crystallized them into a single healthcare system issue, one in which time is of the absolute essence. The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly not the situation you would choose to learn from, but it is nevertheless a situation from which we will inevitably learn and change.

Clear trends are emerging. Ordinary citizens are no longer using digital media channels simply to access information about the spread of COVID-19 and the response to it, they are using digital as a safe way of connecting with their healthcare professionals. In many cases, online consults with GPs have largely replaced doctor’s office visits. Hospitals are increasingly coming together, exchanging data, sharing protocols, and creating the real-time feedback loops needed to cope with the constantly changing nature of the pandemic. They are also supporting each other by using clinical operations centers for acute care (eICU) or setting up tele-radiology and pathology networks to spread the load. AI is being applied to diagnose COVID and complications on images. Smart patches are being introduced to at-risk patients for continuous monitoring. And to protect both patients and staff, they are moving regular care outside the hospital setting – for example, taking remote COVID-19 diagnostics to where the patients are in the community or at home, rather than having the patients visit the hospital. Without telehealth, none of these solutions would be possible.

We are working closely with healthcare providers and sometimes even our competitors to create new products and telehealth solutions – ventilators, monitors, IT platforms, remote diagnostics – at a speed previously thought impossible. What has been learned in one part of the world has rapidly been disseminated to help other parts of the world where the pandemic has not yet peaked.

However, while COVID-19 has been a shock to the system, it’s not the biggest threat to human health that’s likely to materialize over the next thirty years. The cumulative effect of climate change, for example, could well be an even bigger problem and actually be an accelerator of pandemics. There are many lessons learned from the current crisis, particularly in terms of creating healthcare systems that are resilient by designs and capable of addressing the rapidly evolving needs of patients and professionals. We have experienced that Cloud-based systems are easier to deploy and support and more suitable for sharing data between applications. We’ve experienced the power of artificial intelligence to detect COVID-19, identify comorbidities that affect its progression, continuously monitor patients to detect early signs of deterioration and predict new outbreaks. We’ve witnessed the power of large-scale clinical, behavioral, and operational data sets in stratifying patients, targeting those at risk, and allocating resources.

In short, we’ve seen the future of healthcare and how agile innovation can make things work. So now let’s embrace it as the new way of thinking and doing because the absence of normality isn’t a bad thing if what replaces it continues to improve people’s lives.

Editors Note:

Hear more from Jeroen about Philips’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his vision of the future for telehealth during his keynote address for ATA2020 on June 24, 11:00 am EDT.