Impact of COVID-19 on Digital Health Trends

In January 2020, I outlined my technology trends and digital health predictions for 2020. This was several months before we knew about COVID-19 and the global pandemic that would encircle the world. Yet, all but one of the predictions have been further accelerated or have taken on even more importance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From disease prevention to AI for early diagnostics, to connected health, to digitizing clinical trials, all these trends have intensified.

2020 Digital Health Trends, Revisited

As COVID-19 pandemic closes in on a 1-year mark, I wanted to revisit my 2020 outlook on digital health and analyze whether and how COVID-19 affected the original predictions. The list of trends is organized by their position along the healthcare continuum – from disease prevention and staying healthy to acute care, chronic care management and eventually, end-of-life care. Thinking about innovations in healthcare and health technology in terms of their position on the continuum is important, as the impact on outcomes is often much higher the more “upstream” the technology or solution is.

Disease Prevention

The traditional healthcare industry model continues to be largely focused on downstream interventions to treat the disease. Over the pastdecade, there has been a paradigm shift towards more upstream interventions and prevention, as well as treating the patient rather than their illness or condition. The rise of digital health, consumerization of healthcare and patients increasingly becoming empowered to be more in control of their own health and care decisions — these trends have been chipping away at the traditional “sick-care” model.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the major causes of mortality and morbidity worldwide. With the rise of “lifestyle diseases” like CVD and Diabetes in the West and increasingly around the world, the huge impact of individual choices and cultural norms on individual and population-level health outcomes have become part of the conversation in medicine and media.

COVID-19 Impact

But never before has the concept of disease prevention been at the forefront of news, medical professionals and individuals and families as with the COVID-19 pandemic. With such a deadly disease as COVID-19, the importance of prevention through personal hygiene practices (masks and handwashing), population health measures (social distancing and limiting gatherings) and vaccinations became paramount.

Never before has the nation and the world experienced such devastation and trauma, and rose up to mount such a coordinated effort to develop effective vaccines.

Reducing Employer Healthcare Costs

Already back in 2017, one-third of large U.S. employers — those with at least 5,000 employees — offered general medical worksite clinics. These onsite health clinics were designed to save money for employers by increasing employee attendance at work and saving time on off-site medical appointments, while also emphasizing preventative healthcare and improving patient experience for their workers.

COVID-19 Impact

While 2020 started with this trend continuing, the coronavirus pandemic in the spring has drastically altered the approaches companies had to take to keep their workforce healthy and productive. Priorities shifted from general wellness to reducing employee exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in the workplace, minimizing potential COVID-19 treatment costs and maintaining productivity by shifting to work-from-home models. To ensure that their employees could access routine healthcare without potential exposure to the virus at medical sites, many companies quickly rolled out telemedicine solutions.

Artificial Intelligence for Early Diagnostics

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been making inroads in early diagnostics of disease, in particular assisting radiologists in interpreting diagnosticimaging. Another growing area of research is the detection of neurological diseases through AI-based analysis of movement patterns or use of mobile devices. Such passive monitoring, with automated data capture, allows for real-time, always-on monitoring with AI performing the analysis, is being researched for diseases of motor and cognition.

COVID-19 Impact

The importance of early diagnostics came into sharp focus as COVID-19 pandemic took hold. With pre-symptomatic and asymptomatictransmission of SARS-COV-2 virus making it particularly hard to manage and contain, wide spread testing and early diagnostics are important population health measures.

New research shows promise in wearables’ ability to detect early coronavirus symptoms. Recently, Stanford Medicine researchers, in collaboration with Fitbit and Scripps Research, have launched a new effort aiming to detect early signs of viral infection through data from smartwatches and other wearable devices. Another promising 2020 research study showed that Oura ring can predict COVID-19 symptoms three days before the onset with more than 90% accuracy.

Read more: The Rise of Wearables and Their Role During COVID-19.

Care Personalization with 3D Printing

Medical applications of 3D printing are quite varied and include prosthetics, dental applications, tissue, organs, bones, muscle and skin. In addition to these uses in medical treatment, this technology plays a role in medical research, surgical planning, medical education and training and even in drug delivery.

COVID-19 Impact

3D printing became a vital tool in the fight against COVID-19. The global pandemic has deeply affected manufacturing in the United States and around the world. The disruption of global supply chains — first for the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and then for various commercial and consumer goods — created multiple opportunities for Additive Manufacturing, which is continuing to experiencing a resurgence. 3D printing is being used to fill the supply chain gaps in multiple industries. Manufacturers already using 3D printing equipment have pivoted to make different products to address the critical PPE shortages.

Read more: 3D Printing in Life Sciences and Beyond

Connected Health Care and the Internet of Medical Things

Before the coronavirus, more than 75% of medical resources were used to treat patients with chronic health conditions, the majority of thembeing the elderly. These are the exact populations that are at higher risk of serious, even deadly, complications from COVID-19. For the elderly and patients with chronic conditions, and increasingly for the general population, telemedicine combined with technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), wearables and voice-activated services, some powered by 5G, allows for Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) and inclusion of patient’s family and caregivers in communications with the doctor and in treatment decisions.

COVID-19 Impact:

With high risks of exposure to the coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic, many hospitals and doctors’ offices were mandated to close for months, and as a result, regular healthcare has been disrupted for millions of people. Technologies such as Telemedicine/Telehealth emerged as the right modalities to deliver care amid the pandemic. Medical practices that already used this technology experienced huge spikes in its use and others scrambled to quickly deploy these solutions. Now that the healthcare providers and patients got to experience the benefits of Virtual Care, and given positive policy and reimbursement trends, Telemedicine is here to stay beyond the pandemic.

Read more: Connected Health Care and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT).

One thing is clear: the setbacks brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic have also created multiple opportunities for development of novel technological solutions to the current crisis. And it also has a potential to turn the challenges with the healthcare system into an opportunity for more patient-empowered care.



Irma Rastegayeva is a Boston-based consultant, storytelling coach and Innovation Catalyst at the intersection of health, technology and patient experience. Named in the Top 30 Women in Tech, she is recognized as a top influencer in DigitalHealth, HealthTech, PersonalizedMedicine and IoT. Following 20+ year career in product development, consulting and technology management, Irma combines deep technical expertise with patient advocacy and community engagement at www.eViRa.Health, a B2B digital marketing consultancy with an exclusive focus on social media in HealthTech and Life Sciences. Irma serves on the boards of the American College of Healthcare Trustees (ACHT) and Ideas in Action. You are invited to follow Irma on Twitter @IrmaRaste and connect with her on LinkedIn.