Cancer patients have become the unintended casualties of the Covid-19 virus as the lockdown has caused crucial investigations and treatments to be shut down, causing an explosion of stage 3 and 4 cancers.
A huge number of hospital beds are now being filled by patients who put off seeking medical advice during the pandemic because they were too scared to visit their GP.
The statistics are truly shocking. Research by DATA-CAN, the Health Data Research Hub for Cancer, suggests that there could be 35,000 excess cancer deaths in the UK over the next year because of late diagnosis and delayed access to life-saving treatment. Data from NHS England shows that urgent cancer referrals halved during the months of lockdown.
The unprecedented nature of this crisis is forcing the medical profession to take a more innovative approach to providing healthcare, by embracing digital technologies that can be used remotely and online, far away from a hospital or GP surgery.
In the UK, the NHS has moved to a principle of digital-first in primary care during the pandemic, with all consultations performed remotely unless there is a clinical or practical reason not to work this way. In the US, practitioners, insurance payers and regulators have worked hard to strip away some of the barriers that previously stood in the way of tele-medicine.
As well as online consultations, digital technologies might include instructional videos for patients after surgery, smart monitors and wearable devices.
In each case these innovations can considerably improve the user experience and comfort of the patients, who also feel more confident about the procedures they are undergoing.
Giving patients instructional videos which explain what to expect following their surgery, for example, can result in a significant improvement of their recovery and ongoing health because patients typically forget 90% of the advice they receive face to face from a doctor within minutes of leaving the consultation room. By giving them a video to watch, they not only gain a greater understanding of the diagnoses and treatments they have received, they are given clear instructions on what they need to do next, such as taking medication and changing wound dressings.
This transition online also represents a valuable opportunity to provide support to cancer patients by providing them with a platform that can provide understanding and information in a non-touch caring way.
Provided it is done in the right way, utilising digital technology has the potential to deliver a hugely positive impact for both patient welfare and the efficiency of healthcare provision going forward. Indeed this shift towards tele-medicine may well turn out to be one of the few lasting positive legacies of Covid-19.