Global lockdowns to limit exposure and combat the spread of Covid-19 have created hurdles in the normal provision of healthcare that could lead to suboptimal care of people with chronic conditions.
It is incumbent upon healthcare institutions and regulatory bodies to find solutions to this problem. The answer must maintain the continuity of care while safeguarding healthcare providers and patients most-at-risk from SARS-CoV-2 and freeing up hospital resources for essential, life-saving procedures.
Digital technologies are proving to be an adequate solution to these circumstances. The coronavirus crisis has shown the importance of digital development. Some technologies, such as video calls and teleworking, have already experienced adoption on a mass scale, while others are undergoing development at a newly rapid pace.
The benefits made possible through digital technologies are why Lilly Italia have teamed up with partners to create ‘Telemedicine NOW!’ – a solution allowing clinicians to remotely consult with patients who don't need to be physically visited. Through the initiative, patients join a ‘tele visit’ with their clinic via Skype, and can exchange payments, prescriptions and sensitive documents with their physician via a mixture of secure means. It is all governed in line with EU General Data Protection Regulation rules, and requires no use of new software or apps.
The project brings together Lilly with the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart’s faculty of medicine headquartered in Rome, the Italian Consortium for Research in Medicine (CIRM), and the Hospital S. Stefano in Prato. As well as the face-to-face online functionality, those working on the project have developed a handbook for healthcare providers to guide them through the process of performing clinical checks over video. To date, 450 of these manuals have been downloaded, already providing a strong indicator that the project is meeting a critical need.
The Telemedicine NOW! approach is beginning to spread. It is in use at Hospital S. Stefano and has also been rolled out at the local healthcare unit in Foggia and the hospital in San Severo (both in Puglia, Italy), and 10 additional hospitals have asked to join. Currently, the solution has only been utilised in oncology units, but there are plans for it to be adopted in several other therapy areas, including rheumatology, dermatology, neurology and, potentially, all chronic diseases. An English-language translation is also in development.
It could be that very soon you or a loved one will be attending a virtual consultation just as many are now working, sitting down at home in front of your personal computer. In the future, digital health technologies will only become more important as new challenges emerge, and more integrated as new solutions are developed.
Digitalisation is demonstrating that it is a key part of an effective public health response to Covid-19. But the success of the digital transformation of healthcare beyond the pandemic will depend on how we embrace it in the years to come. While the European Commission continues its work towards realising the ambitious Digital Strategy launched in February, we need to ensure regulation in the digital health space incorporates the learnings from this unprecedented public health crisis.
Together with the patient community, healthcare partners, Member States and EU institutions, we need to build the right framework conditions that will enable these digital solutions and innovative technologies to thrive, increase the competitiveness of Europe, increase the efficiency of our healthcare systems and, ultimately, guarantee access to optimal quality care for European citizens.
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The essential role of the regulatory system is even more evident in the global fight against COVID-19. This leads to the question, how will the speed of regulators’ decisive actions and engagement with industry endure across and beyond pandemic actions?