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COVID-19 has accelerated a nascent, steady trend towards digital health

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Highlighting digital health implications for health insurers.

Digital health solutions have arrived in everyday GCC healthcare over the last 12 months. At its peak – during the first COVID-19 wave – GCC health providers reportedly saw up to 30 per cent of patient encounters shift to some form of digital interaction – phone, video, sometimes even email.

From this peak, numbers have come down again, yet many GCC health providers still report stable telemedicine ranges between 10-15 per cent, highlighted Dr Sven-Olaf Vathje, Partner and Head of the Health and Life Sciences Practice at consulting firm Oliver Wyman Middle East and Africa, in an interview with Omnia Health Magazine. “This compares with virtually non-existent telemedicine before the pandemic. COVID-19 has accelerated a nascent, steady trend towards digital health,” he said. “We are seeing adoption rates today that many experts would have expected only by 2030.”

By design, the main impact from the accelerated use of digital health has been improved access to healthcare. All segments in the population and especially vulnerable segments (e.g., frail elderly, chronic disease patients) have found a safe and convenient way of accessing their physicians without the danger of infection through physical contact. Typically, telemedicine encounters have related to low acuity routine visits and administrational encounters (e.g., obtain a regular prescription).

Vathje said: “Accordingly, GCC health providers do not report any improved patient outcomes – but neither is there any widespread reports of quality challenges. It is fair to say that both physicians and patients have adopted quickly to telemedicine as a new channel.”

The real value of an increasing shift to digital health is yet to come. Telemedicine is still an isolated channel. Data gathered is often not systematically collected and combined with offline health records. GCC health systems are still far away from having “digital twins” of their patients, according to Vathje. Still, healthcare providers and insurers have invested significantly into their digital infrastructure in recent years. Physicians and patients are increasingly open to having clinical data collected, shared, analysed and deployed in patient care. This will open the doors towards effective public health management and personalised prevention. At that point, health outcomes will significantly improve and health system costs sustainably dampened.

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Dr Sven-Olaf Vathje
 

Recovery of primary care demand

The impact of COVID-19 on primary care demand in the GCC has been comparable to many parts of the world. After a short-term drop of utilisation numbers for primary care providers by up to 50 per cent in the early days of the pandemic, shared Vathje, volumes of primary care encounters and outpatient visits quickly stabilised closer back to pre-pandemic levels.

He said: “After a brief spike in pent-up demand, GCC primary care providers typically report around 80-85 per cent of pre-pandemic utilisation levels. The speed of recovery was mostly determined by how quickly clinics embraced new access channels (e.g., telemedicine), but also by their specific patient clientele. Some clinics that were predominantly frequented by expatriate workers or visitors saw their patient numbers drop because of residents (temporarily) relocating away from the GCC. This explains why public clinics often saw stronger demand recovery than private clinics.”

Trends reshaping the field of play for health insurers

The COVID-19 pandemic has been shaking up GCC health insurers’ business. The pandemic dust has not quite settled yet on health insurers’ balance sheets; in the short term, policyholders’ somehow lower health services utilisation is partially compensating direct COVID-19 related costs.

In the medium term, Vathje emphasised, the trend towards digital health could have the below implications for health insurers:

Cost pressures: Viable digital health solutions will require capital investments by providers. This may create upward cost pressure on reimbursement rates. Utilisation could rise if telemedicine is lowering the barrier to entry into the health system.

Rising policyholder expectations: Consumers are realising that health delivery can become more convenient. They will scrutinise their health policies with respect to support for access to “new front doors to healthcare.”

New customer segments: It remains to be seen how quickly public GCC health providers will be able to scale up attractive digital health offerings. GCC nationals may require access to a modern front door to health services and opt into optional health policies that specifically cover private digital health channels.

Cost savings opportunity from vertical integration: Insurers may decide to offer comprehensive digital access points themselves, providing a more integrated consumer experience (regulation permitting). Studies show that more than half of primary care episodes can be taken care of remotely by telemedicine channels. Controlling the front door to health would put health insurers into a favourable position to help members navigate the most adequate pathways, ultimately removing unnecessary spend from the system.

“Agile health insurers with a willingness to invest will be able to fight the challenges and embrace the opportunities. The scale will gain in importance, so we may observe a consolidation trend in the health insurance market,” he added.

Furthermore, pent up demand will likely give speciality care (e.g., dental) and preventative screening programmes a demand boost. Elective surgeries that had been postponed during the pandemic will most likely provide utilisation support for hospitals and ambulatory surgery facilities, possibly beyond this year.

He concluded: “Across the board, I expect to see new digital offerings come to market along the care continuum. In particular, primary care and disease management programmes will benefit since digital solutions are scalable in those areas. In the expansion of ad hoc digital solutions provided during the pandemic, data integration and analysis will gain in importance – for better patient management and a more personalised experience. Insurers will support the digitisation journey, anticipating more cost-effective care pathways.”

This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.  

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