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Digital healthcare – will it stay popular after COVID restrictions?

December 20, 2021 / Duncan Fisher

Research data say yes, and with good reason.

The prophesied surge in digital health that was supposed to happen during COVID lockdown clearly did happen, all the data show.

But has it stayed? And if so, why?

Our pandemic-age enthusiasm for digital medicine is the subject of a recent paper in the British Medical Journal,1 that shows that, yes, we have indeed moved onto a medical landscape that is substantially online. It also suggests that we’re going to stay.

The study, conducted by Simon Leigh and his colleagues at ORCHA, a digital health consultancy, examined web-based internet searches for digital health providers in the UK during and after the big lockdowns of 2019-20. They assessed volume of searches overall and search volumes for 25 different therapy areas.

The results, aggregating nearly 127,000 searches, showed an increase of 343%, over 92% of the condition areas. The greatest increases were in musculoskeletal conditions, allergy, and general healthy living.

9 months later, increased volumes were sustained. 84% of the therapeutic areas showed increased search volumes at not less than 50% above previous levels.

What does it mean? That the pandemic’s effect on how we look for care has been profound, and lasting. This study was the first to show it with real-world data, and to explore the differential effect across a spread of therapy areas. Sampling like this allows reasonable suggestion as well that digital health providers will continue to be sought after in and after the next round of COVID lockdowns.

It will be interesting to see what actually happens, now that the Omicron public health measures have been announced. They are not draconian, or not yet anyway. People in England and Northern Ireland are asked simply to work remotely if they can. Welsh employers are being encouraged to let their personnel telecommute where possible. Scottish firms are legally obligated to allow staff to work remotely if they wish, and are being offered lateral flow test kits for workers who have to be in the office.

We can expect that people will need to seek much of their access to healthcare online. Beyond that, when measures ease eventually, the data from the Leigh study make it seem reasonable to expect that we will not abandon our newly-learned online habits.

Patients love these services, after all. They’re prompt, they don’t cost much, comparitively, there’s no need to travel or take time off work, and of course there’s no chance of infection at the clinic.

Insurers like online care too. Not only is it a generally efficient delivery mode, but its promptness allows resolution of a great many health problems before they can turn complicated and expensive.

The prophecy rings true, then, according to real-world numbers. And that should be no surprise, really. Digital health’s enduring popularity is there for some very good reasons.

1BMJ Open 2021;11:e053891. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2021-053891.

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