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Stephanie Hill looks at the efforts made by patient solutions providers in the UK to build and support services outside the hospital environment during the pandemic.
Embracing digital in the pharma industry has been catalyzed by the global COVID-19 pandemic that tested the agility and ingenuity of businesses throughout the sector. In the patient solutions segment, only a few businesses had the scale and capabilities to flip a “digital switch” and continue delivering existing services while responding to increased demand for in-home care. Stephanie Hill discusses how companies responded to the pandemic, shares lessons learned, and looks at what has forever changed for the sector.
The need to care for patients outside the hospital environment wherever possible has been a recognized solution to unburden the healthcare system for many years. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the need to support patients somewhere other than their normal care setting became even more critical. Throughout the pandemic, there was an unprecedented increase in requests for patient solutions support. These include patients receiving treatment for a pre-existing condition, participating in clinical trials, or who’ve self-supported prior to the pandemic using NHS facilities. The common denominator is that all needed to be supported at home with much focus given to ensuring the 1.5 million “shielded” patients across the UK were supported during this time.
The need to fully embrace digital patient communications has been on the horizon for pharma for some time. In response to the pandemic, patient solutions providers had to implement measures to build services for patients and enable them to be supported outside of the hospital environment. Virtual service provision in areas such as patient education, self-administration and phlebotomy all increased significantly, enabling patients to commence or continue treatment at home effectively. As well as the embracing the increased demand for home care, “contact-free care” became a staple requirement - many patients favoured remote support as they believed it lowered the risks associated with people entering their homes and transmitting the virus. When the virus outbreak began, virtual visits using platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp to maintain patient contact quickly became the norm. Considering the needs and technology use of specific demographics has always been an important part of the process. Unreliable internet connections, security, patient confidentiality and a reluctance to use technology have always been potential pitfalls. These must be factored into digital approaches and operational procedures and documentation developed that ensure patients can always be supported safely. While there has been a historical reluctance to accept the use of digital communications technology in some aspects of patient training, the pandemic has almost completely overhauled those reservations. Patient solutions teams are now running a number of remote programs and delivering virtual support to patients that was previously delivered face-to-face.
The industry must recognize that while patients were “forced” to adopt new models of engagement, they have welcomed them. In an interview with the
New York Times
London-based GP Dr. Sam Wessely said, “We’re basically witnessing 10 years of change in one week… It used to be that 95 percent of patient contact was face-to-face: You go to see your doctor, as it has been for decades, centuries. But that has changed completely.” This new dynamic has created an opportunity for pharma to deliver change that will greatly benefit patients. Before the pandemic, research from Deloitte
showed that a mobile working solution for community nurses reduced paperwork time by 60%, increased patient face time by 29% and allowed them to support two extra patients daily. A study of COPD patients found that 94% had better treatment compliance when using technology to manage their disease. The flexibility of the virtual approach has been bolstered by the increased availability of nurses as they work from home. Populations that fall within the “shielded” criteria are unlikely to be geographically clustered which resulted in them spending a substantial time travelling. When working virtually, they have been able to spend more time on patient support activities. The biggest lesson for patient solutions providers is the need to be proactive in future-proofing their services. Businesses that were exploring and developing digital patient engagement approaches proactively, offering support over email, SMS, telephone, and videoconferencing were able to “flip the digital switch” at the onset of the lockdown. As a result, they had the appropriate protocols in place, providing an inherent agility to meet the change in demand. To realise this opportunity, the industry will need to further invest in communications and customer relationship management (CRM) software. The likes of Zoom and WhatsApp, while excellent interim solutions, do not lend themselves to tracking patient engagements beyond the call – this data will be essential in improving patient experience and outcomes.
Throughout the pandemic, the increased service provision from patient solutions providers lowered the need for patients to attend hospital and decreased their potential risk of exposure to COVID-19. This lessened the burden on NHS services, allowing the organisation to focus on caring for patients with COVID-19 and increase testing. The switch to virtual patient engagement has been a key facilitator in this environment; moreover, it has been welcomed by patients, carers, payers and pharma companies alike. As lockdown conditions begin to ease, it won’t necessarily mean a return to pre-COVID operations and many patients will want to continue with the virtual support model due to its inherent safety and convenience. It will be up to patient solutions providers to deliver accordingly.
Stephanie Hill is Head of Patient Solutions at Ashfield UK.