How COVID-19 is accelerating a shift to digital healthcare

Chief Digital and Marketing Officer at McKesson UK, Kyle Rowe, talks about how the coronavirus pandemic is driving significant change and helping to accelerate the acceptance of remote healthcare for both patients and clinicians – April 2020.

With 1.5 million Britons being ‘shielded’, large proportions of the population ‘self-isolating’, and the rest of us in a state of ‘lockdown’, we’re all adapting to a new way of life – but could the pandemic trigger a step change in attitudes to digital health?

It’s interesting to think how much society is already adapting in such a short space of time, and to consider whether some things will ever quite return to the way they were before. Change can often be slow, because we’re caught up in our own lives and find comfort in doing things the way we’ve always done them.  The rapid adoption of new technology can seem too risky, too difficult or unnecessary.  Although gathering some momentum over the last few years, the switch to online ordering of prescriptions, for instance, has proved a hurdle too high for many of community pharmacy’s most loyal patients. Indeed, the demographic profile of this group would suggest that they will resist most forms of online engagement until they have to.

However, the necessity borne out of the current COVID-19 crisis is already driving significant change in the way people are living their lives. We’ve witnessed communities becoming more cohesive by coming together to help the most vulnerable in our society, collectively recognise the NHS and volunteer to support them after the Government’s recent call to action.

People have also been thinking more about how they access their essential basic requirements, such as food and healthcare. As GPs’ surgeries have closed for routine face to face appointments, non-urgent consultations are now primarily being conducted on the telephone or online. This is helping to accelerate the acceptance of remote healthcare for both patients and clinicians at a rate that we could not have previously foreseen. This change in mindset has the potential to fundamentally change the future landscape of primary care, solving some of the historic capacity challenges that were bearing down on the NHS prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Combined with the growth of people willing to pay for the convenience of accessing healthcare when and how they want it, we could be seeing a shift to online treatment for routine and low risk conditions that would normally be treated by GPs or in clinics.

The LloydsPharmacy online service for over the counter products has nearly trebled in recent weeks as people seek out those previously unlikely treasures: hand sanitizer, soap and thermometers. Of course, a typical customer for this service is quite likely to be a habitual online purchaser.  Yet, it is in online repeat prescriptions that we are potentially seeing a much more seismic shift – previously inexpert, inexperienced online shoppers forced to seek out an alternative.  Our own LloydsPharmacy repeats-ordering service – Echo – was growing 25% month on month before the current crisis.  It is now growing 25% week on week and has shifted to a 24/7 operation 6 days a week to deal with demand.

So, could we be seeing a tipping point sooner than we think? It is unlikely that these new customers will revert to previous behaviours post-coronavirus.  The online trend will almost certainly continue to accelerate, providing the choice that we believe patients need; a true omnichannel offering that allows fast and responsive digital ordering as well as a face to face consultation with a healthcare professional when required.