Dispatches from the pandemic

The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, but there are still obstacles to overcome.

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Founded in 1797, as Norwich Union, our people have been there for our customers through several national crises. With experience comes insight. As an insurer offering a wide range of products to support a variety of customer needs, we’ve seen how many different aspects of people’s lives have been disrupted by Covid-19.

Health is not simply the absence of disease but a state of living life to its full potential. It is well established that wider determinants of health have as much of an impact on an individual as factors we would consider to be within the remit of traditional healthcare providers. When we consider the wider determinants of health, from an insurer’s perspective, we identified 3 cross-cutting themes:

Digital
The adoption of digital technology by organisations and acceptance of digital by individuals has been accelerated by the pandemic. It is difficult to see how we would have got through the past year without technology. It has become an enabler for our mental wellbeing. It has helped keep teams connected while working from home and helped families stay in touch with loved ones.

Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, but in the case of digital health, necessity has been the catalyst for the adoption of digital solutions that have been with us for a long time. In a pandemic, the provision of remote support reduces the risk of infection. In normal times, it saves travel costs, travel time and reduces carbon footprints.

In May 2019, NHS England reported roughly 95 per cent of GP appointments were carried out face-to-face before Covid-19. In June 2020, it was estimated that 85 per cent of consultations were carried out remotely.

Technology has also enabled the medical profession to continue to support their patients while helping to keep patients safe. Consultations and therapies such as physiotherapy and counselling are now more readily available virtually. Now, it’s about finding the right balance between digital and face-to-face interactions.

While the adoption of new technologies has been swift, sustainable use of these solutions can only be fulfilled if the whole system is re-designed to enable digital ways of working. Simply using digital solutions as a substitute for an interaction is insufficient to get the full benefit from a digital approach.

Data
Data science has played an instrumental role in the pandemic response. We have seen the deployment of digital apps to help track, trace, monitor and control the spread of the virus. Data has supported the roll-out of our vaccination programme and is helping build a picture of both the short and long-term impact of coronavirus on the nation’s health.

Data also has shown the disparities in how we are experiencing the pandemic. Some groups have been affected more than others, and data has identified which segments of society need more support in improving access to healthcare and increasing vaccine confidence.

The far-ranging individual responses to the virus have shown there is no one-size-fits-all in healthcare. One of the key benefits of digital technology is the ability to use data to continually improve the patient experience. By learning about individual’s preferences patient’s healthcare experiences can be tailored to individual needs.

Despite the many success stories, a recent report suggested that many of the health apps available today do not meet the clinical standards set out by the NHS. There are various reasons for this, including lack of clinical input and potential security issues. Ultimately, this means that they could put the user at risk.

Moreover, people need to be confident that their data is being stored and shared securely to build trust, but we must also be mindful of digital exclusion. Healthcare needs to be inclusive, but access to technology and data literacy are not equally distributed.

Duty
Covid-19 has raised awareness of the dangers of conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Many of these conditions are preventable with the right awareness and wellbeing support in place.

Wellbeing is a social issue that involves government, primary care providers, the food industry, employers and individuals themselves. Duty of care does not lie solely with the individual alone, nor solely with the healthcare system; it is a collective duty that we owe to each other.

An effective way to reach a large proportion of the population is through employer workplace wellbeing schemes. In challenging times, wellbeing moves up the agenda. But some employers may be conflicted between providing wellbeing services and saving money. Often available at no additional charge to the whole workplace population and not just the insured community, wellbeing apps can help meet this need while also providing the ongoing engagement support that is so essential.

The impacts of increased usage of credible wellbeing apps are far reaching. Designed to educate and empower individuals to look after their health, wellbeing apps can also help improve health literacy and target inequalities.

However, it is not just about providing an app. Workplace wellbeing needs to be integrated into the culture of the company and supported by initiatives that foster social wellbeing. Now is the time to move away from seeing workplace wellbeing as a “tick box” exercise and look to encourage long-term behavioural change.

With the right strategy in place, workforces are likely to be more motivated and productive. Many of the comorbidities which have contributed to the significant loss of life during the pandemic could be prevented, helping control the financial burden of ill health on society.

The pandemic has demonstrated that while we may all be weathering the same storm we are doing so in different boats. Inequality has been exacerbated, and if action is not taken, we will be resetting to a new normal in which the iniquities of the old normal are replicated and amplified.

There is great potential in digital technology and data-driven approaches. Both can help reach more individuals who have previously been underserved. It is our collective duty to continue to democratise healthcare and enhance people-centred health systems.

The pandemic has shown us what we can achieve, but it also has shown us where we need to focus to improve. To quote Maya Angelou, now that we know better, we need to do better.

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