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Analysis

How Healthcare Systems Can Sustain the Digital Momentum Spurred by COVID-19

By Mandy Roth  
   September 21, 2020

An Accenture digital health expert provides insights regarding why digital health stalled before the pandemic and how to keep the ball rolling now that it's been more broadly used by consumers and clinicians.

Earlier this year, the health practice of the global consulting firm Accenture released its 2020 Digital Health Consumer Survey, which contained some fairly grim news regarding the use of digital health devices. Fewer consumers were using digital tools to manage their health, the study determined. The numbers were significant.

Use of mobile devices and applications for health purposes, for example, had dropped from 48% in 2018 to 35% in 2020. Use of wearable technology decreased from 33% in 2018 to 18% in 2020. Accenture attributes the drop due to negative experiences; concerns about the privacy, security, and effectiveness of these tools; as well as lack of guidance from clinicians. Not all the news was negative, however. The study also documented greater consumer willingness to engage in virtual care/telehealth experiences.

Then along came COVID-19. With the arrival of the pandemic, digital health usage, including telehealth, surged. "Nearly overnight, digital healthcare as infused into the clinical workday as patients and providers alike were forced to become fast adopters," according to the consultancy.

Yet once the public health crisis ends, what's to keep digital health from stalling once again? Accenture has revisited the topic, and last month published an update to the original report, How Can Leaders Make Recent Digital Health Gains Last? Re-Examining the Accenture 2020 Digital Health Consumer Survey.

HealthLeaders recently spoke with Brian Kalis, MBA, managing director of digital health and innovation, Accenture Health, to obtain further insights into the report and determine what hospitals and healthcare systems can do to sustain the digital health momentum. Following are excerpts from our interview, lightly edited for space and clarity.

HealthLeaders: Can you provide context for Accenture's updated report?

Brian Kalis: Every two years we've done a survey of consumers' attitudes and beliefs related to the use of technology for the management of their health and healthcare. We completed a survey in late 2019 prior to the COVID-19 community spread in the United States. One of the key findings was that overall adoption of digital health was stalling.

Once we had the results synthesized, we realized the impact of COVID-19 was rapidly changing the initial insights. COVID-19 made digital health move from convenience to necessity. So much had changed and is changing in terms of consumers, attitudes, and beliefs, we thought it was important to put those findings in the context of that dynamic environment. We did that with secondary research to demonstrate what has changed. The question is, how can healthcare leaders make those digital health gains last?

HL:  So what actions can hospitals and healthcare systems take to keep the digital momentum going?

Kalis: [Before the pandemic], we found that people were looking to healthcare professionals to provide ways to manage their health and healthcare using technology, but [only] a small number were receiving that type of information and guidance. The key reason for that is how do we actually provide solutions that work within the context of clinicians' workflow, that have gone through validation and vetting?

Out of necessity, COVID-19 forced that type of connection. To reach and engage people and help manage care in their homes, [we saw] clinicians recommending solutions, having virtual visits, and recommending other forms of remote monitoring solutions.

To keep the momentum of digital adoption going, hospital systems can find ways to put these solutions in the workflow of clinicians and leverage the trusted relationship of the clinician to advocate for the use of technology to help people manage their health and healthcare.

HL: As the pandemic hit the U.S., initially there was a huge rise in telehealth, but the number then fell as in-person visits resumed. What comment can you make about the new normal?

Kalis: Going forward, it's really about meeting people at the touchpoint that's right for them. You're seeing this evolution of having more of a blend of in-person care, virtual care, and care-on-the-go versus being all in-person or all virtual. And you're starting to see new care models, as well as new ways of financing care that are starting to mix in-person based connections with virtual connections in new and different ways. So even as adoption [rates drop, they are] leveling off at a higher rate than what was happening prior to COVID-19—upwards of 20% to 30% of sustained virtual use, whereas before you were in the low single digits. So we're seeing virtual health becoming more of the mix in how care is delivered.

HL: In your report, consumers expressed concern about data security and privacy protection. How should this be addressed?

Kalis: There's a big need for openness and transparency in how people's information is being used. Part of this is building trust into the design of digital service beginning with using human-centered design, problem-solving methods to build digital products, and thinking through people's needs and attitudes related to the use of their information. And, more importantly, following up and being a strong steward of people's information once it's received.

HL: Everyone agrees that there are socioeconomic barriers that diminish access to digital health solutions, but there don't seem to be solutions that bridge the gap in an effective manner. What advice do you have for hospitals and healthcare systems about this topic?

Kalis: As digital services are being rolled out, there is a need to understand the people you are serving to a great level of detail—not just on a clinical level—but also understanding all of the other factors around that service, including technology and accessibility to strong connectivity and other services. You then need to ensure that you can actually provide services that meet both extremes. How do you design for both extremes—those who have access to technology and those who don't? You ensure that there are different paths to meet people across different channels and different [touchpoints], based upon what's accessible to them. We've seen an increase in collaborations to try to address that access, often with nontraditional healthcare actors, whether it's hardware manufacturers, communications companies, et cetera, coming together to try to address the gaps in technology access.

HL: Has the pandemic revealed any issues that could impede the progress of digital health?

Kalis: Forced adoption led to a lot of suboptimal digital experiences, both for consumers and clinicians. Prior to COVID-19, we found that those bad digital experiences can have a negative perception on people's view of a healthcare provider. How do we address that and improve the overall experience for both consumers and clinicians to keep a positive relationship going forward?

“How do you design for both extremes—those who have access to technology and those who don't?”

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Prior to COVID-19, fewer consumers were using digital health tools, but the pandemic forced adoption, accelerating usage and underscoring the benefits of technology.

Consumers are seeking information and guidance from clinicians about how to use digital tools; those who provide it can accelerate engagement.

As healthcare systems roll out digital solutions, they need to design for those who have access to technology and for those who don't.


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