The pandemic has exposed the logistical and human shortages of many public health systems around the world and has opened up a new window of opportunity for transforming the world's hospitals to become more virtual and innovative.

Illustration by Kevin Kobsic portraying nurses during COVID-19.

Photo: Illustration by Kevin Kobsic portraying nurses during COVID-19. Credit: Unsplash

By Marta Sotres

The COVID-19 virus, like a silent earthquake, has severely disrupted the stability of global health infrastructures and has heightened the need for adapting critical health spaces into more flexible, innovative ones that are capable of handling new social challenges.

In its wake, the pandemic has exposed the cracks in many countries' health conditions and has made the interdependence between health and the economy apparent, highlighting the importance of healthcare as an investment into the future. This is illustrated by the fact that 86% of Spanish citizens, who are among the hardest hit countries, believe that the pandemic has revealed shortcomings in the National Health System, according to October 2020 data from the Centre for Sociological Research (CIS).

A public opinion also shared at a global level by the G-20 health ministers, who agree that COVID-19 has revealed "systemic weaknesses in health systems", to which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has decided to take action by creating the Health Economics for All Council, aimed at investing in the health sector and achieving sustainable, inclusive and innovation-focused global economic growth.

A logistical and human challenge in record time

A nurse sitting on the hospital floor in Russia.

Photo: A nurse sitting on the hospital floor in Russia. Credit: Unsplash

The collapse of hospitals in the face of a surge in patients, the lack of medical personnel and the absence of material resources to ensure the necessary hygiene measures were some of the most significant shortcomings that health systems in countries around the world - from China to the United States - were confronted with. 

In order to try to bridge these gaps and provide coverage for patients, at least for the short term, a number of solutions were adopted in record time. In the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic, the Chinese government built an emergency hospital in just ten days. In European capitals such as Madrid, buildings were also erected against the clock, as were field hospitals and temporary morgues. In addition, hotels and medical trains were redesigned for infected patients and health personnel. Countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands carried out cross-community patient transfers in the face of the collapse of their health systems.

Nevertheless, the coronavirus crisis shows that its challenge goes beyond temporary logistical measures; the health system today demands long-term solutions that can guarantee sustainable structural innovation in the future.

Innovation is paving the way

A man receiving healthcare via videocall.

Photo: A man receiving healthcare via videocall. Credit: Shutterstock.

As the Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, proposes, "not only do we need more public investment, we also need to reconsider the amount of value we place on our health," adding that "the time has come to write a new narrative" that moves away from seeing health as a cost to it becoming "the foundation of productive, resilient and stable economies.

This notion is supported by Opinno Barcelona's Director and expert in innovation, Xavier Contijoch, who states that COVID-19 has brought about a "change in the mentality of both patients and doctors" and an "acceleration in the digitisation of the health sector". Contijoch explains, for example, how the use of telemedicine platforms and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will become great allies for professionals in the monitoring of chronically ill patients and in remote monitoring of the evolution of diseases.

In this regard, an international team of researchers from Google Health and Imperial College London demonstrated earlier this year that their AI algorithm was more accurate than medical professionals in diagnosing breast cancer, according to a study published by Nature magazine.

Moreover, during the present second wave of COVID-19, progress in the digitisation of the sector is already taking the form of concrete initiatives. For example, the Vall d'Hebron University Hospital has implemented an innovative project in the nursing area, "QR-Nurse", which aims, through QR code technology, to provide fast and accessible video transfer of knowledge about nursing procedures and simple clinical practice. This is a very useful approach for training professionals in record time in the face of healthcare surges.

Furthermore, expert Contijoch considers that "there are some advancements that are here to stay" and exemplifies this with a procedure that was previously unthinkable for regulatory reasons: "During the coronavirus crisis, drugs started being dispensed directly to the homes of the most needy patients". Hospital care will progressively and virtually arrive at the citizen's home and monitoring devices will turn them into active agents in charge of managing their own health. In fact, the Spanish Society of Hospital Pharmacy has recently launched a new COVID Solidarity Fund for dispensing medicines at home, which guarantees the protection of high-risk patients.

Welcome to the Future of the Hospital

"The digital hospital of the future is already taking shape," says Contijoch, who goes on to explain that it is a matter of "building virtual worlds that simultaneously combine a physical space when necessary (emergency interventions, for example) and a virtual infrastructure for other healthcare services".

In short, the expert explains, virtual hospitals will emerge with the objective: "to relieve pressure within the health system and democratise access to health, while maintaining the quality of service, which is the real challenge: to keep people at home for as long as possible in a safe and guaranteed manner".

For their part, the Spanish Society of Internal Medicine (SEMI) and the Institute for the Improvement of Healthcare (IMAS), also radiograph in their report, The Future of the Hospital, the core features that will reshape hospital models into more "fluid" ones. These include the fact that internal medicine will play a more prominent role, administrative digitalisation will be given greater impetus and telemedicine and video-monitoring will gain ground when it comes to decongesting healthcare spaces.

In the long term, Contijoch concludes, the health sector is going to experience "a very clear new strategy of digital innovation", especially in relation to one of the great "limiting factors of the health sector: access to patient data". They will seek "efficient structures to share data in a secure and anonymous way between all players in the sector in order to provide better healthcare to citizens".

In the future, the demographic, climatic and social challenges will continue to produce new "tremors" in the health sector, but if innovation is successfully integrated into healthcare, the future impact will not be powerful enough to destabilise critical infrastructures.

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