With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to spread, doctors and patients are shifting to virtual tools in greater numbers.
Change is coming right from the top.
In the US, federal rules have been relaxed to allow physicians to provide remote care more easily, while in Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a telehealth service enabling people to seek medical assistance via phone or video technology. The telehealth sessions in Australia will be conducted by doctors, nurses, mental health workers and other specialists.
In the UAE, a virtual doctor chatbot was recently launched by the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP) to assess potential coronavirus cases in the country.
The moves come as healthcare services worldwide are increasingly strained by the burden of the outbreak.
Brian de Francesca, chief executive of Dubai-based Ver2 Digital Medicine, explained that telemedicine (or in his words “digitalisation and connectivity”) ensures that clinics and hospitals are not overloaded with people “who have a runny nose”, allowing room for patients who are seriously ill with the coronavirus.
With more of us social distancing or even self-isolating, the use of telecommunications and virtual technology is proving vital in delivering healthcare outside of traditional facilities.
Microsoft Teams, a workplace collaboration platform with chat, video, voice and healthcare tools will for example allow providers to schedule, manage and conduct virtual visits with patients, such as a surgery follow-up.
Teams’ video conferencing is also ideal for patients with a compromised immune system - as is remote monitoring technology.
De Francesca, stressing that immunosuppressed patients should be “kept off the streets” during the coronavirus outbreak, pointed to new technology that allows an oncologist to not only “teleconsult” but also remotely monitor the white blood cell count of an oncology patient – helping the patient to keep away from the hospital for routine blood tests.
Today's technologies go beyond simple 1:1 communication, enabling real-time collaboration for cross-functional teams irrespective of their location.
Microsoft’s popular Teams platform for example now offers features suitable for healthcare organisations, streamlining collaboration between mobile hospital clinicians so that high quality patient care is delivered.
Teams was rolled out to all NHS staff in England and Wales, including those in self-isolation, to enable greater communication and collaboration during the coronavirus outbreak. Through Teams it will soon be possible to target role recipients based on shifts they’re working.
In a similar vein, the Institute of Environmental Management and Sustainability and Dubai-based innovation company Munfarid are implementing an immersive remote work platform tailored for emergency situations like the coronavirus pandemic that includes collaboration and group task features. Dr Sana Farid, co-founder and CEO of Munfarid explained that government departments are seeking remote working options, and immersive work platforms are the go-to technology.
There is another powerful opportunity.
De Francesca believes that telemedicine has the potential to allow physicians, researchers and patients to collaborate virtually to best understand the coronavirus itself and perhaps even develop a cure, while however cautioning that there is a need for coordination and governance.
Earlier in the outbreak, for example, US scientists set up a workspace on the instant messaging platform Slack to coordinate and accelerate research, facilitating the rapid sharing and exchange of information.
Whether or not a critical breakthrough is achieved through collaboration tools remains to be seen, but it's clear that there is no turning back: as millions more patients and professionals alike become newly accustomed to using Teams, Slack, Skype, WhatsApp and other platforms as a result of the pandemic, virtual technologies will play an increasingly important role in tomorrow's healthcare.