We’ve all adapted to major changes in our lifestyles because of the COVID-19 pandemic: here we look at five changes to healthcare that are likely to continue after the pandemic is over.
Digital health consultations, the new normal
Britain’s family doctors found themselves catapulted into the white heat of technology during the pandemic when they had to close their surgeries and use video technology to see patients.
Dr Mark Porter, a UK GP in the Cotswolds and columnist for The Times, told US broadcaster CNBC: “It was always likely to happen, but not at this pace. Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Video technology for GP appointments has existed for years but had not been widely adopted in the UK. Once the pandemic hit, GP surgeries switched to telephone appointments, and many invested in video conferencing technology.
This is a radically different model for Britain’s family doctors. But now it’s likely video consultations will continue. GPs have found video ‘visits’ efficient, enabling them to see more patients or work on other tasks.
But there are concerns. Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “It’s far too reductive to say telehealth is simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It can be hugely beneficial for people who might struggle to fit appointments into their busy lives, or who live a long way from a facility.
“Then again, it raises the risk of digital exclusion – this might not be total for many, but as with any system some people will be able to make better use of it than others.”
Immunity passports grant the right to work, travel and meet your friends
Immunity passports – to prove someone has had the infection and is now immune to COVID-19 – have been suggested as a way to allow people return to work, travel or just get back to a normal sort of life.
But some countries are considering them, the World Health Organization warned against them at the end of April saying, “…there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate’”.
There could be far–reaching consequences from their introduction.
People without one, but desperate to work, might risk catching COVID-19 just to get a passport. Those with an immunity passport, may stop following public health advice, believing they can’t catch it again – and the evidence is out on how long immunity to COVID-19 lasts once a person has recovered from it.
Passports, whether digital or physical documents, could become a lucrative black market with criminals selling fakes to people who don’t have them. Or lead to corruption, with officials being offered bribes to issue one.
They could also add to existing inequalities. If people don’t have equal access to testing, if it costs to get one issued, if there’s bias in administration, then inequities that have been highlighted by the pandemic could be repeated in the issuing of immunity passports.
At the time of writing, no country had yet launched an immunity passport.
Surveillance becomes permanent
In South Korea, at the height of the pandemic, authorities used CCTV footage and bank transactions to track and trace people with COVID-19. The country’s technological ability enabled it to keep COVID-19 infections relatively low and, at the time of writing, to fewer than 300 deaths.
But South Korea was criticised for invading its citizens’ privacy. But now that we’ve all lived through lockdown, might we be willing to sacrifice some privacy to prevent ever having to be stuck at home without our friends and an income for two months?
In the UK, before the pandemic, there was a public outcry about the use of facial recognition technology by the owners of the King’s Cross site in London, which forced them to scrap its use. The technology had been used to track individuals, but the public using the space didn’t know about the technology it and had not given their consent. The owners argued that the scheme helped ensure public safety, but the public made it clear it didn’t want its privacy invaded to protect its safety.
Country’s like South Korea have been urged to disable any tracking apps people have downloaded, once the pandemic passes. But in the Chinese city Hangzhou, there are plans to make its app permanent. The app will gather data on the city’s 10 million residents’ levels of physical activity, drinking and smoking, as well as any medical tests and records. While many Chinese accepted tracker apps during the pandemic, the citizens of Hangzhou are resisting this plan and it remains to be seen if the app will become permanent or not.
Tech companies will become health companies
Technology companies have been edging into the global healthcare industry for several years but 2020’s global pandemic will see them firmly established, in a market worth $9.2 trillion in 2019.
The stock markets certainly believe this. Stocks for Amazon, Apple and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have all risen during the pandemic – and that’s just the companies that begin with A.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated technology companies’ access to the market at a speed and scale that would not have been possible before. In the UK, the NHS is working with Amazon, Microsoft and Palantir to help hospitals figure out where ventilators, hospital beds and staff are most needed.
And the companies’ contribution has been recognised. Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Digital and Culture, said: “These technologies will not only help in the here and now, but they will also shape the future of healthcare in the UK and indeed across the world.
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the start–ups and tech companies that have switched their entire focus to backing the national effort to tackle this health crisis.”
The fall of the anti-vax movement?
Currently, there are more than 100 potential vaccines for COVID-19 being studied. Public health doctors believe that we need a vaccine if we are to ever relax social distancing rules and return to normal life.
But when a vaccine is available, will we all rush to have it?
At the height of the pandemic, surveys showed the public was overwhelmingly willing to accept a vaccine. In vaccine-averse France, where 33% do not view vaccines as safe, only 18% of respondents to a survey conducted at the height of the pandemic said they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine. In the UK, polls found that the number of people who would refuse a vaccine once it became available dropped to just 5% in April down from 7% March.
But as countries come out of lockdown, doctors are worried that the ever-present anti-vaccine movement will undermine efforts to inoculate populations against COVID-19.
A recent study of anti-vax groups on Facebook found that while these groups didn’t have as many followers as all the pro-vaccination groups, their reach was better. They linked their discussions on other Facebook pages, such as parent associations at schools. The pro groups tended to talk among themselves.
And the anti-vax groups are mobilising around COVID-19. With a vaccine is unlikely to be available until 2021, these groups have plenty of time to organise against it, while people who might have welcomed a vaccine at the height of the pandemic, may well have forgotten their fears.