Virtual care – negotiating barriers to adoption offers glimpses of an exciting future

by Danny Buckland 

The predictive genius and jeopardy of futuristic machine intelligence that underpin most sci-fi films are scripting a way forward for stressed healthcare systems and rampaging R&D costs.

It may be a good while before we reach pre- cognitive techniques to ward off disease and accidents, but virtual reality is forging radical recalibrations of everything from drug discovery to bedside care in both the home and the hospital setting.

In the 2002 Hollywood blockbuster film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character merely had to nod or concentrate his gaze to unlock screens of data to help him navigate a danger-laden futuristic life. That type of delivery is yet to be developed, but the data that drives it is being generated in terabytes every second of the day.

Virtual care – a digital-driven spectrum from wearables to virtual hospital wards – is viewed by many as a vital weapon in meeting the global challenges of ageing populations living with multiple comorbidities that are straining financial and human resources. Its ability to synchronise monitoring of patients at home or at local clinics and to provide diagnostic, treatment and clinical trials intelligence can be transformative.

The WHO and the India G20 presidency emphasised its importance by launching ‘The Global Initiative of Digital Health’ (GIDH) in August, proclaiming: “Digital health is a proven accelerator to advance health outcomes and achieve Universal Health Coverage and health- related Sustainable Development Goals.”

“Technology-enabled virtual care solutions have become pivotal at the intersection of healthcare and life sciences to support remote patient monitoring and engagement, driving a transformative shift toward new, patient-centric models of healthcare delivery and clinical research,” observed Nino Giguashvili, research manager for technology analysts and advisors at IDC Health Insights. “Following the period of exponential surge experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual care has now reached a critical juncture that will shape its future trajectory.”

Virtual wards are springing up across the cloud, with the NHS in England targeting a capacity for 10,000 beds by the end of the year. It will have immediate potential to reduce the backlog of almost eight million operations, but it is also a template for healthcare systems struggling to cope with increased pressures, diminishing budgets and dawdling processes.


Transforming healthcare

A report from the London School of Economics, The Role of Virtual Health Care and the Pharmaceutical Sector in Improving Population Health, published in 2021, forecast that the pharmaceutical industry would be a core player in all aspects from population health management to preventive and therapeutic care.

It stated: ‘By 2025, global spend on digital health is predicted to reach €1tn and digital products and services will grow to a market share of 12% (Choueiri et al., 2020), leaving little doubt that virtual health and digital platforms will transform healthcare in the coming years.’

The report cited staff shortages, patient demand, advancing technologies – from wearables to AI – and the reshaping of health delivery during the pandemic as key drivers of the sector surge and viewed the pharmaceutical industry as having a critical role to play in further advances, due to its knowledge of health conditions, patient behaviour, its application of data and experience researching and bringing products to market.

European healthcare systems are wrestling with the mechanisms of adopting virtual care capabilities and collaborating with industry and digital innovators to realise improved patient outcomes and better connected, cost-effective care. Lessons are being learned daily.

“Virtual care has a significant role to play in the future sustainability of healthcare systems around the world,” observes Kate Kelly, Managing Director UK & Ireland, Inizio Engage, a global strategic, commercial and creative engagement agency specialising in healthcare. “It offers ease of access to services to patients, clinicians and HCPs, enabling improved diagnostics and enhanced support of chronic conditions.

“It also leads to the prevention of hospital admissions through earlier detection of conditions and allows more patients to be treated in community settings rather than hospitals. Virtual care can also reach individuals in remote locations, where their attendance might generally be poor due to travel and or mobility needs.

“Virtual care also generates a wealth of patient data captured in real-time reporting across patient populations, health information, treatment responses, lifestyle patterns and medication adherence. All of this generates better understanding of patient responses to treatment, adherence and overall patterns of behaviour, and empowers capabilities to review trends, patient cohorts and treatments and therefore structure programmes and clinical trials in a more targeted and effective way.”

The ability to understand patient populations to synchronise R&D and therapy delivery is like gold dust for healthcare systems, industry and, above all, patients. But it is still a frontier opportunity riven with regulatory considerations and safety concerns.

The digital tools that power virtual care need assessment and approvals to satisfy clinical safety, data protection, cyber security and regulatory requirements. Further challenges exist in how virtual care is integrated into existing frameworks, how patients access it and how to ensure it can develop without bureaucratic delays.


Boosting quality of life

“It is also vital to consider the patients who will be using digital tools,” comments Kate. “They need to be fully informed and have trust in the digital tool they are using to ensure full compliance so that invaluable data can be obtained and utilised effectively. The patient experience needs to be positive to ensure engagement and adherence.

“Driving forward virtual care means more care can be delivered at home with measurable improvements to their quality of life and independence. The savings to healthcare systems from reduced hospital admissions and streamlined services will have a big impact on costs and treatment affordability as well as reducing current backlogs.

“Virtual care gives us the opportunity to deliver care in multiple different ways and changes the format of care delivery as we move forwards. This was accelerated with the pandemic and the urgent need to do things differently.”

The rapid rate of change places a heavy emphasis on agile process and sharply-tuned data, and Inizio Engage has created a FutureFraming capability to future-proof its processes and skills to respond to new opportunities and demand surges.

The exhilarating pace of change is evidenced at Cera, a digital-first home healthcare enterprise that has seen the patient visits that drive its processes increase from 120,000 in 2019 to 18 million in 2023. It has established the largest home healthcare data set in Europe (150+ billion data points) through care plans, care visits and sensor technology, which it uses to leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to fuel continuous improvements in patient health outcomes.

Cera, which is one of the fastest growing sector companies in Europe, has been able to reduce hospital admissions by 52% across the care it delivers to 20 million people and it is springboarding more growth by augmenting its existing systems with AI and ChatGPT technology.


Trust and reliability issues

“Virtual patient care is increasingly recognised as a critical component in enhancing healthcare delivery and patient outcomes,” says Luigi De Curtis, VP of Growth at Cera, which operates in the UK and Germany. “It helps address the gap in care and clinical staff and is much more cost-effective than treatment in hospital and, most importantly, it also drives better patient outcomes overall, because virtual care allows for real-time health data collection that enables better informed and timely medical decisions.

“Our rapid expansion reflects the evolving needs of an ageing population and the challenges of the health system, particularly in relation to cost and capacity pressures. This growth is not just a measure of our impact, but also an indicator of the trust and reliability that patients and healthcare providers place in digital health solutions like Cera.

“Digital technology is pivotal in building sustainable healthcare systems, enhancing efficiency across various aspects of healthcare from diagnostics to tailored therapies.”

The attraction of virtual care is clear with major organisations collaborating with digital health companies at a higher rate and with bigger deals. In November, Merck KGaA partnered with Huma Therapeutics to develop digital solutions to help cancer patients better understand and manage their conditions and treatment protocols to encourage adherence.

Roche’s navify portfolio of digital solutions aims to maximise healthcare insights and performance through integrated data that, it states, ‘connects the healthcare community, delivering clinical, operational and financial value, accelerating innovation and unlocking opportunities for better care’. It was recently deployed at the Hospital del Mar, Barcelona, to help its tumour board to standardise and improve process to enhance cancer treatment.

A GlobalData market report on virtual care observed: ‘Pharmaceutical companies are not only focusing on innovation to enhance their patent portfolios, but are also making strategic investments in virtual care. These investments aim to secure lucrative deals with partners and position themselves at the forefront of industry advancements. Some of the recent deals underscore the importance of virtual care in the pharmaceutical industry.’


Accelerating drug development

Health Tech founder and M&A Advisor Lloyd Price believes virtual care can bring a sweep of benefits, but cautions that it will still need to find a way through barriers around access and affordability for patients, the security of patient data and the licensing of healthcare providers to practice across geographical and care boundaries.

“Despite these challenges, pharma partnering with digital health companies will continue to grow, because they offer access to new technologies, such as AI and machine learning, that can help accelerate drug development and innovation,” he observes. “Digital health companies can help identify new drug targets, design clinical trials and analyse data more effectively.

“Digital health solutions can also help pharma companies to improve patient engagement and adherence to treatment plans. For example, wearable devices can track patient activity and medication adherence, and digital platforms can provide patients with personalised education and support.

“The collaborations also promise new revenue streams through developing digital therapeutics, which are software-based treatments for a variety of medical conditions.”

Huge levels of activity and transformation are expected over the next few years, with industry becoming even more entwined with digital. The sci-fi leaps of fantasy in Minority Report may never all come true but, as the film reaches its 25th anniversary, healthcare will have a new reality.

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