Impact of pandemic shows increased support for virtual healthcare provision

Almost two-thirds of Northern Ireland patients who would use virtual GP consultations during the Covid-19 pandemic would continue to do so, even after the risk diminishes. The news comes as NHS patients and healthcare professionals call for greater digital access to the UK health and care system.

PwC’s Tech powered healthcare - A strategic approach to implementing technology in health and care report finds that there is a high level appetite for implementing new technology to free up time for patient care and improve systems. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen GP consultations and hospital outpatient appointments moving from face-to-face to virtual. Almost a third of patients in Northern Ireland have already used remote GP appointments. The most common form is via phone consultations (32%), followed by video (3%). Just over a quarter of patients in the region said they felt safer with virtual appointments and almost half (44%) said they were more convenient.

However sustainable growth in this area could be challenged as a result of poor infrastructure. 20% of respondents reported that they live in an area with an unreliable phone signal which has an impact on WiFi connection, compared to the UK average of 8%.

Healthcare and industry professionals believe digital access to NHS services is the highest priority change that could be made to the UK health and care system. 62% say digital access to NHS services is the highest priority change for the health and care system, followed by 42% feeling that mandating technology standards is also a high priority change. 

One in two (54%) of healthcare practitioners surveyed say that overcoming cultural resistance to innovation, for example staff feeling empowered to adopt and champion new ways of working, will be key to the NHS successfully adopting technology.

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, former Health Secretary and PwC advisor, said: 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of technological change in the NHS.  It is a major achievement by NHS staff to have implemented these changes so quickly in the midst of the biggest crisis the NHS has ever faced. Patients and professionals alike want to see the benefits of a digital NHS becoming a permanent fixture of how care is delivered in future. That will require new partnerships between the public and private sectors, the right levels of investment, changes in culture and reforms to staff training.   

“The prize is faster and more accessible care for NHS patients while making better use of the invaluable skills and time of NHS staff. The changes the world is seeing in digitalisation when allied with advances in genomic science opens up the prospect of a revolution in how healthcare is provided.  I hope decision-makers seize the opportunity with both hands.” 

PwC spoke to people in various roles in the health service and in industry and ran a survey with healthcare professionals. Respondents anticipate the greatest move from face-to-face interactions towards digital will be in primary care services, with 44% saying outpatient care provided by GPs and hospitals is expected to experience the greatest move towards digital interactions.

The PwC report sets out a roadmap and recommendations for the NHS on how to embrace available technology as well as upskilling patients and staff. Recommendations include recruiting people with the skills that allow them to lead on technological solutions; paying people to innovate and spread ideas so it becomes part of the day job; innovation funding for systems to make efficiencies through technological solutions; and to urgently embark on a massive upskilling programme for patients, their carers and the broader medical community.

David Armstrong, Public Sector Lead for PwC NI, commented: 

“The way we came together every Thursday night in the early months of the pandemic to ‘clap for carers’ shows the regard we have for our healthcare professionals. The pressures they’ve faced and will continue to as we manage Covid-19 are immense. It’s important that we look to new ways to support them and the transformation to increase digital access to healthcare is key. 

“Healthcare workers believe this is the most sustainable future to deliver on the healthcare we want to have. Investment on upskilling patients to feel confident to use digital services will be key. While about half of people said they were more convenient, roughly the same number said they found virtual appointments more difficult. Getting this right will require a focus on partnerships, investment, innovation to fully realise the benefits of tech-powered healthcare.”

David Morris, UK Public Sector Health leader for PwC and author of the report, said:

“The NHS must ensure it has the right skills, structures and experience to drive the innovation required. This includes recruiting people with technological skills, and making innovation part of the day job for people to create and spread ideas. In a world built increasingly on collaboration and connections that reach across the globe and into every sphere of our lives, our healthcare institutions should also be connected - with each other and with patients - so that they can share learning, innovation and information.”


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