COVID-19 has put unprecedented pressure on the entire healthcare system. This undeniably challenging time has forced physicians and medical directors to make rapid decisions and implement many far-reaching changes that were only a vision of the future just a few months ago.

The exhausting fight against the pandemic, at the same time, became a catalyst for a digital transformation in global healthcare. Overnight, we witnessed a technological acceleration, but above all, a revolution in the approach to using IT solutions in medicine. The widespread introduction of digital medical records or telemedicine tools proved to be not only possible but extremely important from the perspective of the entire system, guaranteeing uninterrupted delivery of healthcare services in the Covid reality.
Covid-driven acceleration
Digital solutions such as telemedicine, regulated by law since 2015, were used only minimally before the pandemic, and their development was blocked primarily by financial issues. The pandemic triggered a dramatic change in this area and IT solutions have become an essential part of everyday life in healthcare. According to the results of the Future Health Index 2021 report (a survey commissioned by Philips and conducted among healthcare leaders in 14 countries, including Poland), as many as ¾ of leaders and managers in Polish medical institutions recognise the need to invest in and implement IT infrastructure. Moreover, the respondents indicate state-of-the-art technologies as the top priority for developing their facilities within the next three years. The introduction of mandatory e-prescriptions, e-referrals and e-sick leaves has facilitated access to medical records, accelerated data exchange between facilities, and streamlined direct contact with the patient. Electronic medical records have created a solid foundation for further changes in technology development and paved the way to subsequent stages of healthcare digitalisation and the construction of new models of healthcare delivery.
From the hospital to home
Citizens appreciate the opportunities that the digital transformation has provided during the Covid pandemic. While a visit to the doctor’s office has traditionally been the first point of contact between doctor and patient, it has been replaced more recently by a phone consultation. Biostat’s April 2020 survey showed that as many as 72% of Poles regard telemedicine as the safest method of contact with a doctor. Nearly half of the respondents had used the technology in the week preceding the survey. However, the benefits of remote patient care are not just about maintaining social distance, but about easing the burden on the healthcare system. E-solutions make it much easier for doctors to manage the treatment process and for patients themselves to have more control over their health.
Telemedicine is developing into a complex system of remote diagnostics and monitoring. The patients themselves report their health condition, and the path to direct contact with a doctor is significantly shortened. Thanks to the effective implementation of digital solutions in medicine, we can go far beyond hospital walls to obtain treatment. As shown in the Future Health Index 2021 report, only 15% of routine medical procedures are performed outside the hospital or medical facility. The development of IT infrastructure can help change this and maintain the hospital as a highly specialised facility, where the most advanced services and treatments are performed. The future will witness a transition from medical services concentrated in the hospital, to a focus on patients, surrounded by care provided in their immediate environment, including remotely, in their homes. The realisation of this vision, thanks to progressing digitalisation, will significantly relieve the burden on medical staff and solve the problem of overcrowding, enabling healthcare personnel to work more efficiently, and facilitating the implementation of balanced, pro-environmental practices in medical care.
Medical tourism - driven by new technologies
The development of IT infrastructure and provision of comprehensive medical care outside hospital walls also opens up new prospects for so-called medical tourism - trips, often abroad, combining sightseeing and relaxation with various medical services. In Poland, we have witnessed the development of this branch of the economy since 2008. Within just a few years, we topped the list of countries most frequently visited for medical purposes. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased awareness of the importance of health, as well as a greater need to protect it. In addition, it has contributed to the emergence of a new group of patients - those who are recovering from Covid. This will create more demand for sanatoriums, SPAs, rehabilitation holidays, and other types of specialised medical services. The accelerated digital transformation in healthcare will effectively respond to these needs and support the development of medical tourism. Remote diagnostics, which equip doctors with tools giving them access to medical data in real time, and coordinate the entire system of hospitals, clinics, and outpatient clinics - all of this translates into the ability to make decisions faster, look at the patient holistically and consult with other medical centres around the world. It makes it possible to provide proper, comprehensive patient care in various specialised facilities such as hotels, SPAs, sanatoriums. It creates entirely new opportunities, which the Warmia and Mazury Province has already witnessed. At the initiative of the Warmia and Mazury Tourism Organisation, a new intelligent “Health Cluster” specialisation has been created, bringing together several entities, including local government institutions, medical facilities, hotels, the University of Warmia and Mazury, as well as technology companies, such as Philips, to collaborate on medical tourism in the region.
Barriers to innovation
To take full advantage of the opportunities offered by e-health tools, we have to face the challenges that stand in the way of modern development. The Future Health Index 2021 report lists a lack of experience among medical staff with new technologies as one of the main internal barriers for medical institutions to prepare for the future. This was confirmed in the report’s previous edition, which showed that one third of young medical staff in Poland was unable to use digital patient data. Budget restrictions do not help with investments in training on digital solutions but also limit the full implementation of e-tools. Another issue is the lack of time for proper onboarding of patients during medical visits. Some patients, especially those who are older and less technologically proficient, have problems using specific digital solutions. There are also challenges related to the reimbursement model and remuneration for the number of tests or procedures performed rather than the effects of treatment, which limits the large-scale introduction of, for example, telemedicine.
Digital technologies, which gained importance during the COVID-19 pandemic, have paved the way to enormous transformations in the Polish health service. They have shown that it can function completely differently, more efficiently and closer to the patient, with benefits for medical staff. Will we take full advantage of this opportunity? It depends on how consistently and systemically we approach the topic of digitalisation in the coming years. One thing is sure - we have gained digital momentum, and the post-Covid reality in medicine will never be the same again.