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COVID-19: Will digital become the 'new normal' in healthcare?

An interview with Rupert Spiegelberg, CEO of Doctorlink, symptom assessment provider to the NHS and techUK member.

COVID-19 has changed life as we know it. With over 860,000 confirmed cases globally, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University, countries around the world are finding themselves under increasing pressure.

This week, we caught up with Rupert Spiegelberg, CEO of techUK member Doctorlink, to understand how the company has responded to the crisis.

techUK: Every day, we are seeing more people be affected by the spread of the coronavirus. In places like Singapore or Taiwan, technology has been at the heart of strategies adopted to tackle the outbreak. At Doctorlink, how are you supporting providers and citizens in the new landscape?

Spiegelberg: Doctorlink is an online Symptom Assessment platform whose algorithms have been developed by a team of expert clinicians over the last 18 years, classified as a Medical Equipment device. It recently had its eleventh COVID-19 update to the clinical algorithms. The latest release, which is available to 10 million patients across England, includes new logic to identify patients who are vulnerable due to their age or underlying health conditions, and provide them with appropriate advice.

The symptom assessment app was first updated to detect potential cases of COVID-19 in January. It continues to be updated daily to reflect new guidance on the novel coronavirus from NHS England, Public Health England and the UK Government.

Patients indicating symptoms of COVID-19 or potential exposure to the virus are advised by the symptom assessment platform to self-isolate and call the NHS 111 service for further advice. Those requiring urgent care, with factors indicating potential exposure to the virus, receive instructions to notify 999 operators of the additional risk.

The update supports general practices by prioritising remote appointments to contain the spread of the virus.

techUK: As we can see from your work, health tech is at the forefront of the response to COVID-19. In recent weeks, have you seen any new tools, services or initiatives that you believe have the potential to help or are already doing so?

Spiegelberg: In the absence of universal testing for COVID-19, there have been some initiatives aimed at trying to broaden the net in terms of assessing how widespread infections have become. One of them is an app developed by King’s College London that encourages people to self-report COVID symptoms via an app (COVID Symptom Tracker) to try to get a better picture of the outbreak and identify those at risk sooner. I believe it has gone viral and has picked up over a million users in the first week or two of its launch.

techUK: Do you believe this will this be a turning point for the health tech space?  

Spiegelberg: The COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of the old adage that when the tide goes out, you can finally see who is not wearing swimming trunks. In the same way, as COVID-19 has hit various countries, there has been a big difference in infection rates between those countries that have got on the front foot with respect to technology, as you say, and those who have not, whether it be in testing, contact tracking or demand management.

To date, healthcare has been slow to adopt new technologies for understandable reasons, but COVID has changed the balance of demand and supply so greatly that there is now far greater willingness to accept a more digital experience when accessing healthcare. I think that once the dust has settled, people will find it difficult to go back to the old way of doing things and the reliance on digital will become the new normal.

techUK: Let's talk a bit about your workforce. How have you mobilised staff to work from home, and how have you found this transition?

Spiegelberg: At Doctorlink, as a provider of a registered Class 1 Medical Device to the NHS, we felt maintaining business continuity was paramount during this crisis. For this reason, we were one of the first companies to close our offices and begin a ‘working from home’ policy, which has been in place now since early March.

In doing so, we have managed to avoid people going sick (I believe I am the only employee to date that has contracted COVID), and continued to serve the NHS and all of our other clients.

Every department has taken on this new challenge with great vigour and, in a funny way, I feel that we are getting more done now than ever before. We hold daily management stand-up meetings, daily departmental stand-up meetings and daily interdepartmental meetings, all via Google Hangouts or other software.

In some ways, information is flowing across the company better than it ever has done. However, we are conscious that working from home bears its own pressures on individuals, whether they live alone, with flatmates or with family, and we are constantly thinking of ways as to how best to mitigate this by shortening meetings, livening up group chats by making them less formal, ensuring video switch on and getting more active on company message boards with more light hearted material to keep the spirits up, as well as encouraging people to step away from their computers during the day.

When this is all over, I think that we will develop much more of a mixed model in terms of working from home and coming into the office, as each environment offers its own benefits depending on the tasks at hand.


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