The Coronavirus pandemic helped to usher in wide use of digital health tools to help patients stay connected to healthcare providers, as well as engage in their own health, during times of social isolation. Digital health’s ability to fill the void during times of crisis showed its role in the future of healthcare, with wide-sweeping acceptance from providers, payers, and even in the ranks of CMS. Now with a COVID-19 vaccine becoming available, digital health is also paving the way toward ending the pandemic and creating a new health tech driven future. 

As 2021 brings a fresh start, and a more optimistic future than the year we leave behind, it’s clear that digital health will continue to play a key role in shaping our lives. Below are key elements where innovative use and advanced technology will contribute to ending the pandemic and reshape our healthcare system. 

Telemedicine and Mobile Care

Telemedicine is nothing new, but its use became more widely accepted for remote care during the pandemic, approval from patients and providers also helped to secure its foothold for the future. Elements of telemedicine will be critical for treating those with COVID-19 in the form of 

Telemonitoring and mobile care, utilizing robotics and artificial intelligence to stay connected to patients. The Department of Veterans Affairs have already launched a National Emergency Telecritical Care Network (NETCCN) to create virtual care wards for Coronavirus patients. NETCCN would assist health care providers, wherever they are located, by obtaining real-time patient and supplies data and disseminating critical care expertise. By connecting advanced telehealth technologies, clinical data, as well as clinicians, patients and their families, NETCCN can make virtual care a reality and deliver quality health care to more remote and underserved areas. 

Digital health passports

Traveling is going to look very different in a post-COVID world. Several airlines and cruise lines are already requiring passengers to provide proof of negative COVID test results, and soon proof of vaccination. To support this effort, numerous digital health companies are developing a health passport. Similar to a digital patient record, the health passport shows the time, date, and results of the latest health screenings as well as vaccination records. The CommonPass system, backed by the World Economic Forum (WEF), is designed to create a common international standard for passengers to demonstrate they do not have coronavirus. countries that have closed borders and imposed quarantines are looking for ways to “thoughtfully reopen” their borders.

Wearables to track symptoms

We know that wearables can track elements such as heart rate, body temperature, and pulse. During the pandemic, these elements, along with blood oxygen levels and activity patterns, became early indicators of potential COVID exposure. Now wearables are being examined by health systems and payers to help determine if early interventions are needed. SAFER-COVID is a digital health solution that integrates data from consumer wearable devices, electronic health record and claims data, and COVID-19 test results to indicate whether users are ready to return to work and normal activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These early warnings are likely to become more commonplace and used to monitor the health status of infected and potentially infected individuals.

Digital Health for Testing, Tracking Patients 

Digital health also extends to remote patient monitoring and synthetic clinical trials, which combine health records from many patients to test therapies. The growth in those areas could prove crucial for pharmaceutical companies whose patient recruitment efforts for clinical trials may be lagging due to physical distancing practices.

Digital health technologies built around smartphones and wearable devices will play an essential role beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.  Digital health platforms acquire large amounts of data from many different sources spanning from testing technologies to sensors. By analyzing the data inputs through AI and machine learning, researchers gain powerful new insights for reducing the risk of infection and returning to normal activities. Digital health tools create new direct-to-patient channels to track, communicate, and educate users on health and safety practices. 

Digital Therapeutics

In an October survey of more than 16k patients, 65% said they would wait to get the vaccine until directed by their physician, and 11% said they would never get it. It’s clear that the existence of a vaccine isn’t enough to end the pandemic, and patient education is essential to drive action. In order to successfully combat the virus, we can combine biological vaccines with digital therapeutics to educate users and reinforce healthy behavior related to vaccine use. Using digital health tools to communicate to patients about the COVID-19 vaccine, its effectiveness, side-effects, and impact to vulnerable patients can help to change behaviors. 

Digital vaccines can leverage proven training to reach a broad audience, and be deployed widely, quickly and updated frequently. Using mobile technologies, digital vaccines are envisioned as evidence-based prevention approaches delivered via smartphones for nudging positive behavior. They use digital interventions that draw on principles of neuroscience, psychology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and behavioral economics to provide safe and low-risk mechanisms for influencing significant behavior change. The goal is to provide informative features within a mobile app to encourage healthy action and prevention. 

The pandemic will eventually end, and with innovative and advanced applications of digital health, its end will come sooner than later. At the same time, digital health is also proving its worth in helping to create a new future that requires a greater level of attention and engagement in patient health status. We’re not going back to the way things were, but with new tools and smart applications, hopefully, we will see a better, healthier tomorrow. 

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