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01 September 2021

The digital doctor: future or pipedream? 

It’s March 2020. The Coronavirus bursts onto the scene. Overnight, whole countries are locked down. Shops are shuttered. Offices close. Flights stop. The streets are empty. GPs close their practices. Hospitals batten down the hatches to focus on Covid and emergency care.

Our way of life has been turned upside down: we shop online, work on Teams, and have drinks on Zoom. We have no choice - we can't go anywhere.

Even healthcare quickly shifts into virtual space: images are shared online, consultations are done over the phone, diseases monitored remotely. We limit physical encounters to prevent infections.

Flashback to 2010. “Digital healthcare” is just a bunch of words. Me, I’m starting my PhD research into e-health in GP care, looking into the idea of digital support for chronically ill patients. Numerous GPs tell me they do not want to participate in my study, because “e-health will blow over”, “my patients aren’t interested”, “we don’t do that kind of thing”.

We are now 10+ years and one pandemic further along.

It is impossible to imagine life without e-health or digital care and what’s more, it appears that patients are perfectly happy with digital healthcare. After all, e-health gives us 24/7 access to care. Digital tools let citizens handle much of their healthcare needs themselves. For example, in my native Netherlands, parents can visit websites such as www.Thuisarts.nl, fill in a digital questionnaire, and confirm that their child simply has a cold. These kinds of digital resources help patients get what they need – and spare overworked healthcare workers.

So is e-health here to stay? Well, not so fast. 

As lockdowns unwind, people go back to work and play, and Covid-19 becomes a nasty memory, many healthcare providers will be tempted to return to old familiar patterns: “normal” practice hours, “normal” waiting times, the usual overcrowded waiting rooms with stacks of ancient gossip magazines… GPs and their staff will complain, as they always have, that their practice is too busy.  Back to normal.

And of course, there are always negative reactions to digital healthcare initiatives. People don’t like change. And just like human doctors, AI tools can sometimes give the wrong answer. People will focus on the problems. There will be mistakes, setbacks, drama – and you can be sure it will be tweeted, written about, opined on.

Are we headed back to pre-Covid times, then? In my view, it’s unlikely. The genie is out of the bottle. We can see that e-health has worked. It’s no longer science fiction. We have solid data and evidence now. We have experience in embedding digital applications in healthcare. And we understand what patients and citizens need. So let's not revert back to old patterns now. Let's embrace the inevitable change, with all its benefits, and take any teething problems in our stride.

Change is overdue. A reorganisation of GP medical care is sorely needed. Let’s design consultation hours that suit this modern age. With digital options fully embedded in the organisation. With a constructive critical and open attitude towards daring digital initiatives. Together with scientists and patients. I for one am helping to build that future, and I can’t wait to see it arrive.

Author: Esther Talboom-Kamp, PhD, Chief Innovation Officer at Unilabs Group

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