Wednesday, Apr 29, 2020
How the Pandemic Will Change Healthcare
Ali Parsa PhDCEO/ Founder, Babylon Health
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our team will be interviewing experts from across the ecosystem to bring the HLTH community timely facts and updates.
Hear that silence? It's the sound of a planet that's been brought to a screeching halt by a tiny pathogen. Who would have believed only a few months ago the surreality of record reduction in global GDP, oil prices nosediving to below zero for the first time in history, or 22 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits in the space of a few weeks*. We’re living in a moment that’s going beyond anything seen in most people’s lifetimes.
The world as we know it is being changed by COVID-19, both on an institutional and personal level. Take for example the biggest institution of them all - the government. If the prime role of any government is the protection of the security of its nation, then the very definition of that security has just been challenged. The U.S. has lost more people to COVID-19 than to the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and to all terrorist attacks on its soil including 9/11, combined. No government will be able to ignore the warnings that our real security challenge is not just ‘a war but a virus’ and not just ‘missiles but microbes’.
While our institutions will change, each of us individually has already changed in so many ways. My experience of COVID-19 has been punctuated by the loss of my father. He survived partisan wars, radical movements, political internment and revolutions, and yet lost the battle against this unseen tiny organism. A fit, healthy man in his early 90s, he was a humanitarian, an entrepreneur, an engineer and my best friend. Just before he went into the ICU, he asked to speak to my children, his grandchildren. He told them this crisis would pass, like every other. But he also told them we should never forget it, and they must emerge wiser. Our people individually, and our society collectively has paid too high a price to return to business as usual.
So, where do we go from here in healthcare?
The pandemic has exposed our ‘unhealthy’ shortcomings
Even before COVID-19, we faced supply shortages in healthcare, that meant our industry only served a minority of the world’s population. Half of humanity, according to the World Health Organization, does not have access to basic healthcare, and 5 billion people cannot even dream of getting access to any kind of surgery.
In 2016, the WHO reported that we were 5 million healthcare professionals short, and things are getting worse. By 2030, the world would have a deficit of 18 million healthcare professionals. And here we are. COVID-19 has exposed it all. Einstein used to say “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. I am going to be controversial here. The old methods of healthcare, with all its best intentions, have failed us and we cannot go back. The good news is that many governments, medical professionals, health systems and innovative businesses across the world have already acknowledged this and are working together to uncover new solutions.
New technology is the new normal
It’s been remarkable to see how we’ve all adapted to the current situation. Healthcare has adapted faster than most thought possible to meet our needs. Only a few months ago, something as mundane as telemedicine was considered ‘a radical new technology’. Now, it’s commonplace. But this crisis has also exposed its shortcomings. A doctor behind a phone is as expensive, and as much in short supply as one sitting in a clinic. The same is true with many other promising solutions. So how can we use technology to safeguard our health?
The answer is to forget about the means and focus on the needs. This is the moment we discovered that it’s not about the technology but its application in solving the root cause of a problem. Some healthcare systems are already learning from this, and proactively thinking of new ways of harnessing innovation to solve their foundational problems of scarcity of clinical resources and unpredictability of disease behaviour.
How need-driven innovation can protect our health systems
For Babylon, this pandemic has shown us what we can do. At the time of significant surge in demand and shortage of clinical resources, we built a COVID-19 Care Assistant solution to give every person the most appropriate care by the most appropriate resource, while safeguarding our clinicians for the patients who need them most.
We created a disciplined digital funnel that gives information and reassurance to large numbers of patients who are seeking it. An AI tool to allow people to find their most probable causes of any symptoms and help them decide to self-isolate if necessary. Care plans based on the latest information, digital monitoring throughout recovery, the option to chat with a trained professional if more help is needed, 24/7 remote consultations with a doctor when required. And it speedily refers patients into hospital, only when necessary.
This system allows the same number of frontline staff to help a much greater number of people, all whilst making sure that people get the care they need. Our service now covers 8% of England’s population and is being launched to millions of members in the US and Brazil. Already we’re seeing that around 80% of people who use it don’t actually need to speak to a clinician – that’s a huge release valve for any clinical resource.
The simple rethinking of solutions like this will result in meaningful change, making healthcare more affordable and accessible to people everywhere, including the billions who were previously being left behind. It is time these solutions are applied to assist with significant challenges, such as management of chronic conditions, from diabetes to mental health. Now that we have seen what can be done in meeting one crisis, there is no excuse to ignore the chronic crisis that we have been struggling with before this one.
Changing attitudes can help change healthcare
Accelerating advancements in technology and biology is about to melt into air all that we know in healthcare. A perfect storm is brewing that will merge the new discoveries in quantum computing, AI, mixed reality, robotics, organ reconstruction, genetic engineering and synthetic biology, to help us shape new possibilities hitherto unimaginable. For the first time in history, it is possible to dream of making quality healthcare accessible and affordable for every person on Earth.
But science and technology by itself won’t transform healthcare. What is required is a change in attitude. Each and every one of us is responsible for that change. These are dark and difficult times. We cannot let it go to waste, and must learn from these challenges where we can. People all around the world have paid far too heavy a price for us to go back to the way it was before. It is our obligation to those who have suffered not to return to our old ways, but to reshape for the better all that we do.
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