A contactless future and major policy resets: A post Covid-19 world promises many transformations

The sudden jolt brought about by the Covid-19 the outbreak has unexpectedly changed the world in many ways. A world that was busy in building geopolitical strategies, investing in advanced weapons, and engaging in tariff wars has suddenly been brought to its knees by an enemy completely unknown.

Among many things, this pandemic has served to remind us about the priorities that should have been. According to research group SIPRI, military spending in 2018 amounted to 2.1% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), or USD 239 per person. Even though world governments on average spend more on healthcare than on military, high levels of spending on the latter do highlight the ‘opportunity cost’ or the lost spending on health and social development. An analysis shows that India spends roughly five times more on defense than on healthcare.

Apart from the above realization, the pandemic has also driven home the threats a globalized world can pose and the need to raise our preparedness to deal with them. With the world found grossly un-prepared to fight this kind of war, we can expect several policy recasts and resets in the near future. We also expect to see a major leap in terms of the adoption of futuristic digital technology, automation, and AI-backed tools in healthcare.

Into a contactless future

As much as the Covid-19 crisis reminds us of an Apocalyptic Hollywood film, it is leading us towards a future straight out of sci-fi imagination. This crisis has catapulted us into a future that is “contactless” in many ways. Automated disease screening kiosks, face recognition tech and unmanned reception facilities are some elements of this futuristic global design. With the requirements of social distancing likely to stay, communities and organizations are expected to increasingly adopt ‘contactless’ ways of performing their daily functions. Work from home and study from home have already become mainstream. Google and Facebook have announced an extension of their remote work policy until 2021. A renowned Indian IT giant is already planning for a future where it won’t need to have more than 25% of its workforce at its offices. Similarly, home deliveries of groceries are likely to become a norm, remote teaching is likely to become more common and remote doctor consultations are also likely to become the new normal.

Healthcare will get its due

The crisis will also have long-ranging impacts on policy decisions cutting across governments and countries. With overwhelmed hospitals, burnt out healthcare workers, and shortage of Intensive Care facilities highlighting the shortcomings of healthcare systems, the need to have a more robust healthcare infrastructure has been the most important learning from this period. There is a growing realization that healthcare has been under-funded and under-valued and it is time that this approach is changed. In line with Sustainable Development Goals, governments across the world have already been pledging to increase their Healthcare Spend as a percentage of the GDP. However, the Covid-19 crisis has underlined the need to completely change our approach to healthcare.

If we take Covid-19 as a lesson to handle future pandemics, we realize that countries such as Germany which had very good intensive care settings experienced lower death rates. Similarly, Cuba which has the world’s highest ratio of doctors to population had its doctors volunteer extensively to support countries reeling under the epidemic. This tells that a universal healthcare system, robust primary healthcare facilities, a healthy doctor-patient ratio backed by equipped emergency and intensive care services can help us tackle such pandemics better.

Despite being low on resources, India has so far shown great resilience in dealing with the disease. Along with the secondary and tertiary care networks, our primary healthcare workers are at the forefront of disease containment measures by aiding testing and monitoring. However, this experience should propel us towards a future where universal healthcare is not just a slogan but a reality. The need to have more doctors and specialists per 1000 population, more eICUs, and more equitable distribution of healthcare facilities is what we must aim for. Policymakers must also start using predictive analysis reports for both infectious and non-communicable diseases to have more robust and well-delineated healthcare budgets.

Digital health will become mainstream

Digital healthcare and telehealth services have been thrust to the forefront in recent times. Telehealth services have suddenly turned mainstream as hospitals suspend non-emergency OPDs and promote remote consultations. Responding to this trend, governments across the world have acted swiftly to remove negative barriers hindering telehealth usage. The US administration announced expanding State insurance coverage to include telehealth facilities. The Indian government lent statutory backing to telehealth by issuing and notifying the first-ever official guidelines governing telemedicine practice. These circumstances have served to unleash a behavioral change in a large part of the population. Even doctors who were earlier not conversant with telehealth technology have now readily adopted it. For patients who have experienced the benefits and convenience of telehealth, this is likely to become a life-long practice now, even when the outbreak ebbs.

Digitization will also redefine several other facets of healthcare. Increased usage of digital tools such as medical kiosks and face recognition systems will allow people to walk in and discuss their health parameters with a medial chatbot anywhere. Already, some hospitals have installed such kiosks at their entrances to check the health conditions of visitors before allowing them in. Increased adoption of thermal screening systems at airports, railways stations, etc is also expected to become common. The Covid-19 pandemic has also hastened the adoption of AI-backed digital monitoring systems in hospitals to monitor parameters like temperature, heart rate, oxygen saturation in patients. Such digitally automated monitoring systems are also likely to become the norm.

The impetus to medical research

As the world waits for a coronavirus vaccine and new treatment pathways, all eyes are centered on medical research establishments. This pandemic has served to remind us that medical research remains under-funded despite its importance. Also, there are huge regional variations with high-income countries having an average of 40 times more health researchers than low-income countries.

While the budget allocation for healthcare in India has increased since the rollout of the Ayushman Bharat scheme, expenditure on medical research has not seen any significant rise. The allocation for research grew marginally from Rs 1727 crore in FY19 to Rs 2100 crore in FY21. With the outbreak reminding us of the need to have strong research capabilities, medical research is likely to get a boost in the near future.

Usage of AI, Robotics and Big Data in Healthcare will grow by leaps and bounds

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of the need to strengthen our disease prediction and prevention systems by leveraging Artificial Intelligence and Big Data. It is noteworthy to mention here that a Canadian predictive analysis startup that uses an AI-backed platform had successfully predicted the Covid-19 outbreak in late December itself, a whole nine days before WHO first warned about its emergence. The platform spotted a cluster of “unusual pneumonia” cases around in Wuhan and alerted its clients about an impending outbreak. This is the way to the future. Greater use of AI-backed technology with data analytics to analyze, predict, and even manage such outbreaks is also likely to be put into greater use.

Robotic surgery will become the new normal as hospitals look to invest in technology that minimizes risks of infection and enables greater precision, faster recovery, and shorter duration of patient stays. The use of drones in healthcare is another futuristic leap on the anvil. Drones can be used to carry emergency equipment or medication, transport organs for transplant, collect samples for diagnosis, and reach remote patients in medical need.

Having said this, we need to understand that digital tech can be an enabler and will augment existing healthcare systems. It cannot be a replacement for functional, robust public healthcare systems and can neither be effective in areas with limited or no Internet access.  Our first priority, in the contactless future, therefore should be establishing a functional universal healthcare system that is accessible to all people.