Increased consumer engagement with digital health innovation fuels a new vision for the future, writes Jens Kögler, healthcare industry director: EMEA at VMware.

In 1816 Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope, the first tool a physician could use in treating patients – one opening the doors to a new era of medical diagnostics. And yet, it took the industry three decades to widely adopt this, as Medical Associations shied away from using a ‘gadget’ on patients.

Fast forward to the present day, and the first digital stethoscope is now a matter of fact not fiction – with AI powered algorithms in the back of the device listening to the most minutia of patient anomalies and relaying these findings to doctors. The doctor need not even be near the patient – the digital stethoscope can be sent to areas experiencing doctor shortages, where an application will guide the patient through its use and a doctor can listen from continents away.

This disruptive technology is faster, more effective and half the price of analogue stethoscopes before it. And there’s every likelihood your doctor is not using it. Why? Remember the three decades it took for the first stethoscope – effectively a wooden tube – to be adopted. Now, consider the speed of digital innovation happening before our eyes; the myriad of new technologies becoming available every day, on top of the exponentially expanding amount of medical research and studies available, and the lack of any real curriculum helping healthcare professionals upskill and incorporate these into daily practices.

Are the tides now finally turning? We have in the past year witnessed the single biggest accelerator of digital disruption and adoption the healthcare sector has ever known. A seismic transition has been forced into existence following the pandemic outbreak, in consumer attitudes towards embracing digital healthcare and in how the industry needs to respond. Like never before, it is having to keep up with the pace of disruption – let’s investigate.

Choice, concern and convenience: changing the dynamic

New research from VMware of over 6,000 European consumers found that almost half (44%) are now comfortable with – or even excited about – replacing routine medical consultations with remote, virtual appointments. And this isn’t just the younger, typically ‘tech-savvy’ generations; 45-54-year-olds were among the most enthusiastic for a new virtual world of healthcare, where their regular consultations are conducted via technology rather than in-person.

Rewind just two years ago, and such levels of virtual enthusiasm would simply not have existed. Yet, the forcing hand of the pandemic has changed the dynamic between the choice, concern and convenience of how we engage with health services.

Take the UK as an example; before the virus, video appointments made up only 1% of the 340-million annual visits to primary care doctors and nurses in Britain’s National Health Service.

But as the outbreak accelerated, as the NHS encouraged all of the UK’s 7 000 GP surgeries to reduce face-to-face appointments, we saw physical A&E visits across all unit types drop by 57% (versus the year before) while online doctor platforms like Push Doctor saw a 70% weekly increase in consultations.

A similar trend continues to grow in Germany; not least since diagnoses from online doctors are now considered proof to warrant sick leave in the eyes of employers.

The pandemic removed the choice of having face-to-face routine consultations, forcing many to overcome long held concerns over the safety and security of virtual meetings with medical professionals. Now, we accept and realise the logic of a 10-minute video call to discuss blood sample results versus travelling to a physical waiting room and sharing this confined space with other patients for an unknown amount of time.

As this convenience starts to trump concern in certain healthcare scenarios, consumers are waking up to the broader opportunities new digital services can bring.

We are now that much braver and confident in nascent digital healthcare technologies like AI; today, 40% of consumers would place their trust in a computer that can detect and recognise anomalies, for example cancerous cells, over a human doctor.

And distrust of data use in healthcare – previously a huge hurdle to overcome – is subsiding; 60% are now comfortable with doctors having completely accurate data about their daily lives, such as rates of exercise to diet and nutrition, in order to receive better health guidance and counsel.

Forty-five per cent of Europeans are even comfortable or excited about a more qualified doctor conducting invasive surgery via remote robotics than a less qualified doctor operating in person – more a vision for the future than current common practice, but an indicator of where things could head.

Life after the big digital switch: the appetite for innovation

While the pandemic was the big digital switch, a major catalyst for change, what is now fuelling the growing consumer enthusiasm in digital healthcare? I believe a domino-effect style adoption of new technologies is eroding doubt, fear and scepticism of the role of ‘digital’ in protecting ourselves, friends and families.

Those taking the first steps in accepting technology’s potential to monitor, diagnose and improve their health and wellbeing are helping shift mainstream consumer perceptions for the longer term.

Consider the move we’ve already made beyond using a quick Google search to ‘diagnose’ broad symptoms – evidenced by the explosion in online services such as Doctorlink, the AI-enabled digital doctor that can suggest treatment plans, or apps like Ada which, built by a neuroscientist and a doctor, has completed 20-million symptom assessments.

We’re at a point where wearable fitness devices monitor our vital statistics everyday with increasing granularity and where motion sensors can aid remote recovery – for example, determining whether patients are putting enough weight on their knees after knee surgery and completing prescribed exercises, rather than the past method of daily, face-to-face progress updates.

And that’s before the potential to properly exploit state-of-the-art applications such as augmented and virtual reality and AI. The results and diversity of use cases here are breath-taking. From rapid analysis of certain disease patterns to pinpointing the risk of respiratory diseases via an algorithm that simply runs over x-ray images of patients’ chests, to comparing findings with theoretically millions of other patients to recommend the best treatment; AI can help us make decisions faster and better, combining infinite different data sources we as human beings are not able to. It could, for example, help measure the growth of a tumour and illustrate the trend in milliseconds – giving the radiologist the gift of time, to really concentrate on the important thinking that requires creativity and experience.

And the message from consumers is that they want more of these innovations. Two-thirds now identify themselves as ‘digitally curious’ or ‘digital explorers’ – a ready and receptive audience for new digital services, one with a growing belief in the power of technology to benefit the health and wellbeing of themselves, their friends and their families. Fifty-eight per cent of consumers, for example, are comfortable or excited that family members with a chronic/long-term illness could have the freedom to live further away from medical facilities, thanks to sensors and real-time data monitoring predicting when they will need medical assistance. Almost half, meanwhile, have faith in technology significantly lowering the risk of invasive surgery within the next five years, as 51% believe it can meaningfully improve the quality of lives of vulnerable people, such as the elderly or disabled.

Realising the future of healthcare

It is this consumer belief in, and demand for, digital healthcare services that is laying down the challenge for both industry and government. As with the introduction of the stethoscope, the first steps are sometimes the hardest, but the big digital switch of 2020 has kickstarted this domino-effect of enthusiasm and excitement whereby consumers clearly feel less wary of technology in their patient care.

What’s more, given the intense and ever-growing pressures on healthcare workers and the systems themselves, I’m confident we’ll see an even greater digital appetite from more of the population to find a futureproof system that works for everybody.

That all means the opportunity is there for the taking. As new care models and services have been accelerated, now is the time to create, deliver and protect great applications, services and experiences – powered by a flexible, consistent and intrinsically secure digital foundation – to meet the expectations of consumers and transform the cost, quality and delivery of patient care forever.

A brave new virtual world of healthcare tech awaits, we just need to realise it.