Is this the END or a BEGINNING… of COVID that is?

A modified version of this article was published on Express on January 12th 2021

The NHS and other health services around the world have been pushed to breaking point. We need to prepare them for the twin challenges of an aging population and more pandemics and novel viruses becoming a regular occurrence.

The solution isn’t necessarily more money…

The first step is for us to admit that healthcare in some of the world’s richest countries is stuck in the 20th century and not fit to protect us from the challenges of the 21st. The next step is to commit to rolling out the digital technologies — in particular, Artificial Intelligence — that can ease the burden placed on healthcare workers, reduce costs, and most importantly, save lives.

Israel has implemented a world-leading vaccination program. It was able to vaccinate 15 percent of it’s nine million population in just over two weeks.

Part of the key to their success lies in their heavy investment in digitized healthcare systems. But digitization alone is not enough: it is about how you manage that technology, and integrate it with the frontline healthcare workers’ human efforts.

Robots that can perform surgery already exist, as do remote monitoring systems and algorithms that can predict illness.

These technologies are here, but mindsets have not caught up.

Both policymakers and medical experts do not want to disturb the status quo, and in doing so put our society in danger. This is a luxury we can no longer afford.

The end of the COVID crisis will not be the end of the healthcare crisis.

Pandemics are set to become a staple part of the 21st century.

Dramatic weather events like floods and hurricanes, spurred on by climate change, will spread waterborne diseases like cholera. Deforestation means that more animals are exposed to human populations, increasing the chance of another zootropic disease spreading across the planet.

Pandemics are here to stay, and we’d better prepare for them. Every illness is, for the individual and his or her family, a tragedy. Not using every technology at our disposal to avoid that is a travesty.

To head off these challenges, healthcare needs to be at least as tech savvy as other digital services, if not more so. If we can digitize our taxi and pizza delivery services as we have done so effectively, surely we can do the same for our healthcare.

Perhaps one of the barriers is concern around privacy. It is one thing for our shopping habits to be in the hands of hackers, quite another for our private health conditions.

We are all familiar with FitBits, but they are the tip of the iceberg. Wearable digital technologies can be used to track biometric data like heart rate, blood pressure and sleep quality.

If your Doctor can see that, and feed the data into an algorithm, you can get an early warning sign that, for example, your blood pressure is unusually high. Compare this with the current system, where often you will be unaware of the problem until the worst happens — resulting in harm to you and increased burdens on health services.

AI can correctly diagnose diseases 87 percent of cases across all diseases — performing slightly better than a human Doctor. Robots are already a regular feature in some surgeries.

Matt Hancock has committed £250 million to boost the role of AI in the healthcare service. China is applying AI to personalized DNA treatments to create personalized treatment programs; we are playing catch up.

The speed of Covid vaccine discovery has shown that when we put our minds to it and the incentives are there, we can make years of progress in months. I hope this will be part of the new normal.