The response of the healthcare sector to the global pandemic has been phenomenal. The speed with which it responded – and continues to respond – to unprecedented demand has been truly inspiring. With a real “can-do” attitude, quick decision-making and an openness to new partnerships, health services across the region have stood up new hospitals in days, converted in-person consultations to virtual ones, and moved back-office staff to the safety of their homes. At the same time, they’ve delivered ground-breaking research and development that will help us recover.

As we reflect on the many ways in which the Covid crisis has changed behaviours, we can start to reimagine how healthcare might transform in response.  As part of a series of conversations reimagining the future across different sectors, I recently had the chance to meet with a group of senior representatives from the EU and the healthcare sector from across Europe. We talked about the changes we might expect to see in healthcare. Several key themes came up in the dialogue.

Expanding access to care through telehealth and virtual consultations

The crisis has greatly accelerated the acceptance of remote consultations – for both patients and healthcare professionals. While this has clearly been forced due to efforts designed to minimise physical contact – it’s worked well. We know that, in many scenarios, patients respond to treatment better in their home environment than in hospitals. Virtual delivery opens up the opportunity for greater family involvement which also improves care and recovery. The critical contribution of families and friends in helping patients cope with illness cannot be overestimated, and it is vital that it is incorporated in our thinking. With technology delivering more virtual consultations, it’s easier to see ways we can bring family and carers closer to the heart of patient care.

Data offers many opportunities but needs robust regulation

Even with the enormous amount of data that has been collected during the pandemic, it’s striking how much there is still to learn about the Covid-19 virus. My co-panellists all believed that patients would share their clinical data for the greater good provided that they have full trust in how it’s being used. Patient involvement in the design of the regulatory framework is important. The scope and intent of the regulations also needs to be clearer to clinicians so that rules are properly applied and not feared. Regulations are not designed as a barrier to better patient care. Trust is the key here and building the right regulatory environment is really important to support that.

Business continuity

A major feature of the response to the pandemic has been the move of office staff to work from home as much as possible, and this is true in the healthcare sector too, where many back-office teams were quickly moved to safety. As in many other sectors, we expect that in the future we will see a hybrid working environment, where offices are used for collaborative, in-person tasks but mixed with much more frequent home working. We have seen that remote working can be successful and people can see the advantages of a hybrid model.

What needs to happen now?

For me there are two critical areas where we need to focus effort if we want to realise the benefits that digital transformation can bring to the health sector

  • Improve digital skills – this challenge is certainly not unique to the healthcare sector. Across societies we need a higher level of digital literacy so that we can all have confidence in using technology. Ideally, we will get to a place where digital solutions are not forced on anyone, but taken up because people find them simpler, better and more effective. Creating a culture of learning and getting people comfortable and confident in using new technologies needs real focus.
  • Extraordinary teaming and partnerships need to be the way we do things. We have seen great examples of this during the pandemic and we need to nurture those skills. Best practice can be shared across sectors and between organisations. None of the many challenges the world faces right now will be solved in isolation. Partnership will be a core capability for any organisation.

In conclusion

We’ve all learned lessons over the past months and can see new ways of doing things that we’d like to retain in the future for even better healthcare. But the biggest lesson the pandemic has taught us is just how important good health is and how important the healthcare sector is to society. The phenomenal response of healthcare professionals to the Covid-19 pandemic, has left us all in awe.

Watch highlights of the conversation.

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Wendy Mars

Senior Vice President

President - Cisco EMEA