Disease X represents “the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.” The goal is to simulate a new pandemic so healthcare systems can prepare for a potential and unknown threat to public health. So far, medicine lacks effective drugs for some infectious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, so it is necessary not only to push the boundaries of science but also to develop disease containment strategies.
One of the ways to break the chain of infections is quarantine or lockdown. This solution is far from perfect, as it entails many side effects affecting citizens’ health (limited access to medical services for chronic patients and in acute cases) and the economy. When vaccines against coronavirus allow us to overcome the pandemic, which will hopefully happen soon, there will come a time to draw conclusions for the future. It will not be an easy analysis: COVID-19 has already taken the lives of 1.5 million people. Every country tested different strategies to fight the pandemic—the public debt caused by support programs for an economy in lockdown will be a considerable burden in the coming years.
This is the best time to adopt a completely new approach
On the one hand, we can celebrate that science has gained importance; on the other hand, a part of society denies scientific facts. Globalization revealed its weaknesses when we were running short of drugs usually imported from other parts of the world and equipment that every country fought to get for itself. Bottlenecks in health care systems, manifested in staff shortages, were brutally exposed when the number of patients grew rapidly and exceeded the average for the last few years. Compared to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, we have had greater opportunities to manage the crisis due to scientific progress and digitization. Today, care can be provided remotely. Data exchange helps to monitor the spread of diseases. AI enables a quick diagnosis for everyone who has access to a mobile phone. Did we make fair use of all these opportunities to deal with the COVID-19 crisis?
A self-learning and self-regulating system
During the pandemic, telehealth solutions’ adoption has sped up significantly. Remote telecare services proved their value and have been reimbursed by health insurers. Some countries have launched remote monitoring programs for COVID-19 patients treated at home. In some European countries, up to 40-50% of people installed coronavirus tracking applications. We have also observed an unprecedented growth in investments in e-health solutions. These sudden shifts have led to long-term social, cultural, and legal changes.
The pandemic has made us aware of the value of data. Digital health is no longer an abstract notion, but rather one of specific solutions for millions of patients, such as electronic prescriptions or telecare. Finally, medicine has taken notice of the unused potential in technology. Doctors have had to shift to remote communication with patients and move away from the previously prevailing pattern of visits to a doctor’s office. Young, familiar with new technologies, citizens will accelerate digitization as they don’t want to go back to the old care standards. The success of digital health as one of the tools used to fight the pandemic will remain an argument in favor of further digitization. Sustainable and resilient healthcare systems using modern tools that meet current social expectations are systems based on data flow.
Plan D is for digitization
Even though the benefits of digitization discovered amid the COVID-19 pandemic are convincing for many people, strategies for artificial intelligence and digitization in healthcare have to go beyond the challenges posed by the pandemic. When it is over, priorities will be reshuffled. We will have an opportunity to apply the experiences gained in 2020 in addressing challenges like non-communicable, chronic diseases, or mental disorders.
This is the best time to adopt a completely new approach, rather than return to old methods that did not work. We should invest in preventive medicine and telemedicine, encourage citizens to take more responsibility for their health by introducing innovative digital services, building trust towards digitization, and implement progressive regulations that favor e-services. We should use data for research purposes and better epidemiological surveillance, opt for digital education of current and future medical staff and develop solutions that make it possible to transfer healthcare to every home. This approach is a political choice, not a matter of available technologies.
One more change has happened in 2020 that may become essential for future healthcare systems. I mean the close relationship between digital and public health. Before 2020, many state authorities dealing with population health and even ministries of health in many developed countries were distrustful of e-health. Modern technologies did not fit in with the academic theory of medicine that predates the digital era. What stood in the way of e-health was the conservative approach taken by science and an argument that ended all discussions: “There is no evidence that investments in e-health pay off, in terms of health economics and health outcomes.” When politicians make decisions, first of all, they take into account their chances for re-election. Hence, investing in new technologies seemed to be too risky.
Healthcare systems have an excellent opportunity to apply digital health technologies to break the mold and drive necessary changes in healthcare. When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, healthcare will remain overloaded, under capacity constraint. Small repairs won’t help any-more — there is an urgent need to build a new system to meet today’s challenges.