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How accelerating digital implementation reduces the COVID-19 care backlog

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The global death toll from COVID-19 has now exceeded a million but many more people may have died from unrelated illnesses because of extensive disruption to healthcare services worldwide.

“Thousands of cancers and other serious disease diagnoses have been missed, vital operations have been cancelled and clinical trials halted. Health service providers are now facing a massive backlog,” said Dr Suliman Alomran.

The Medical Informatics Lecturer at the College of Medicine, King Saud University, Saudi Arabia, was speaking as the Moderator of an expert panel, convened to discuss COVID-19: Maintaining Continuity of Care in Times of Health Crisis.

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Dr Khaled Alabdulkareem, Assistant Minister of Health for Primary Health Care in the Saudi Health Ministry, said there has been a significant increase in the utilisation of the health hotline and consultation app since the pandemic struck. Virtual-consultations rose from 10,000 per day pre-pandemic to 50,000 during the crisis. 

Even though they were busy with COVID-19 patients, Alabdulkareem said it was important to remember other important health needs such as childhood vaccinations, maternity care, and chronic disease care.

He added that digital solutions were used or upgraded to maintain continuity of care: “Measures were taken to maintain continuity of care by some interventions, like the provision of virtual care solutions to the specialised, and primary care, clinics, as well as the provision of specialised consultations through the health hotline. We have provided the health hotline for Type 1 diabetes, for psychological, or psychiatric consultations, as well as to refill medication.”

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He said they also developed a communication solution for primary physicians and their assigned populations, which enabled proactive and reactive healthcare. It also sent alerts reminding patients to have health check-ups, visit chronic disease clinics and get vaccinations.  

The UK’s West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership has tried to maintain continuity of care by accelerating digital implementation.  According to Mubashir Farooq, the digital project lead, they had intended to launch their new GP Online Consultation platform in 2021 but pushed it forward because of the pandemic. 

“Everyone was very anxious going out to the hospital or the GP practice to access care, so we did see a fall in people attending GP practices, but we had an increase in people ringing the 111 service, which is an NHS online service, so it was very important for us to implement the GP online consultation platform,” he said.

He added that 98% of the region’s 316 GP practices now held online consultations. And in July, for example, there were more than 37,000 online-consultations and over eight thousand video-consultations.

The Partnership also fast-tracked the Maternity Choices Web/App, launching the platform in October, to enable the sharing of clinical information across hospitals and trusts, and to give women access to their maternity records and personalised care plans.

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Farooq is now considering how to utilise digital platforms in Emergency care and is working on a new tool call EDDI (Emergency Department Digital Integration). If everything goes to plan, from December, the NHS 111 service will be able to book time slots for patients in Emergency Departments nationally. This will help manage patient numbers and reduce the risk of infection.

To tackle the care backlog the panellists found It necessary to upgrade software or implement new systems. Their Australian and Indian counterparts, who attended the recent HIMSS European Digital Conference in Helsinki, took similar actions. They agreed the pandemic highlighted the need to accelerate digital maturity to improve health.

Register now to listen to the session ‘on demand’ at the HIMSS Middle East Digital Health Conference and keep up with the latest news and developments from the event here.

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