How stakeholders should push digital health services to fight COVID-19

German-based Ralf Jahns, MD at Research2Guidance, explains the role of different stakeholders in fighting COVID-19.
By Ralf-Gordon Jahns
02:13 am
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Ralf-Gordon Jahns (pictured on the right) is the Managing Director of Research2Guidance, a leading market analyst and strategy consultancy company for the global digital health market.

The coronavirus is spreading around the world exponentially. Governments, healthcare providers, and businesses are introducing drastic measures to slow down the spreading of the virus. 

There is a strong belief among digital health providers that their services can be of great help now. There are already more than 800 million users of digital health services globally, including symptom checkers, mental health, digital therapeutics, telehealth, fitness solutions, to name just a few segments that provide their services remotely. Providing remote care to ease the pressure on healthcare systems is what is needed now.

Digital health solutions can be effectively used throughout the entire coronavirus patient 'lifecycle', from triage and self-testing to quarantine and post-quarantine management. Companies are currently rushing to expand their service offerings to support the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. All industry stakeholders should act quickly to overcome barriers for a wide implementation push of digital solutions.

There are three groups of stakeholders which are best positioned to make digital health services offerings an important piece in the puzzle to fight COVID-19. Time matters a lot. All stakeholders should focus on using what is already available on the market. Building ecosystems of existing solutions that support all stages of the coronavirus patient's 'lifecycle' might be more appropriate than developing something from scratch.

First line stakeholders, such as telehealth providers, are already reporting a strong increase in the use of their services. Furthermore the second line stakeholders, such as digital therapeutics companies, are expanding their services to meet the demand from quarantined patients. Every day there is a new announcement of a COVID-19 related offering from digital diabetes, cardiovascular or digital weight loss service providers. Enablers are now asked to quickly select, promote, and apply these services to their customers, members, employees and populations.

GROUP 1: PRIMARY GROUP OF DIGITAL HEALTH SERVICE PROVIDERS

This group offers services which could be immediately used to reduce some of the load on the healthcare system.

Telehealth service providers: Depending on the country, the status of the telehealth industry differs significantly. In general, a good expansion strategy for telehealth companies during the crisis is based on the two elements:

  • Waive license fees for coronavirus triage calls. Most of the competitors in Western and Asian countries have done it already for an unlimited or limited time.
  • Allow, if not offered already, technology license services for hospitals, including remote training courses.
  • Expand service offerings into testing site finders, test kit supply services, and quarantine patient management.

The main challenge is to scale up capacities by training and hiring new healthcare professionals (HCPs) who would be able to manage COVID-19 related calls. Moreover, business models should concentrate on getting agreements with government institutions, health insurances, Medicare and employers to get paid for expanded service offerings. 

Triage and test service providers: Currently there is a high need for efficiently managing and increasing the testing capacity globally. The first - mainly questionnaire or chatbot-based - solutions have been quickly built up and are already widely available in East Asian and Western countries. New service providers would have to create new value propositions, reaching into test appointment scheduling or test kit supply in order to differentiate. 

Tracking and tracing service providers: The demand for these services is supposedly high. Yet it also might differ depending on the country because of privacy protection advocacy and travel/movement restrictions. In countries with high data privacy standards, vendors should concentrate on quarantine geofencing solutions. In others, there might be opportunities for travel/population movement tracking services as well, at least during the peak time of the pandemic. 

GROUP 2: THE SECOND LINE OF DIGITAL HEALTH SERVICE PROVIDERS

For the group of digital mental health service providers, the crisis might be the breakthrough opportunity they have waited for so long. Expanding their service offerings into quarantine management (especially the management of stress, depression, and isolation-related problems) or general population anxiety management service sounds like logical service expansions for them. For the second line players, waiving license fees for HCPs and caregivers for a limited time might be a good way to expand into this market.

Connected device vendors have already started to relabel their test devices to match the need for home testing (especially connected thermometers, blood oximeters).

GROUP 3: ENABLERS

This group of players is currently in the first line of fighting the pandemic. They hold the keys to make digital health a core component in improving quality (triage, testing), reducing the workload and the infection risk of the people working in the healthcare system. 

Hospitals, HCPs, caregivers: It has been surprising to see how quickly hospitals in East Asia have been able to implement digital health tools to reduce their workload and infection risk for their staff. Hospitals in other regions of the world - if not done already - should identify and select from existing digital health services to support in-hospital patient care, post-discharge, and HCP stress management processes. They should also evaluate options for the use of robots to reduce contact frequency between patients, HCPs and caregivers.

Governments: They have started to see the potential of digital health tools to reduce testing and in-hospital patient numbers. They should waive restrictions on telehealth services, by allowing first time visits and extending geographic reach, as well as screen, select, promote and financially support digital health tools along the entire coronavirus crisis value chain.

Pharma companies: For them, this might provide a long-awaited opportunity to enter the digital health market. This is especially true for diagnostic arms and respiratory franchises of those companies. Pharma companies should recalibrate their digital health strategies to be able to quickly engage into new partnerships with digital health solutions providers. They should build and support an ecosystem of digital health solutions for fighting the pandemic; yet also create platforms (user access, user data) for the future 'beyond the pill' strategies, including the identification of quarantined patients for drug/vaccine development trails.

Payers: Insurance companies and employers should now push digital remote tools to their member base and employees. For those who already have digital health solutions in their portfolio, now is the time for a big push through incentives, marketing campaigns, online training courses etc. Those who have not had a chance to develop their own health concierge, HCP finder or symptom checker should quickly form their ecosystem or collaborate with digital health portfolio providers or brokers.

Even though the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic might end in a few weeks or months, we will be much better prepared to manage the potential second wave by pushing digital health solutions into the healthcare system, and learning how to benefit from digital supported remote care in other areas as well.