There is no doubt that COVID-19 has changed the world, forever. This is particularly true of the NHS and patient care. Going forward, care providers will need to blend traditional techniques with new technology and training to help ensure patients continue to receive the support they need in a way that is sensitive to their concerns around COVID-19 and meets a newly adopted preference for remote engagements, all while offering the same standards of care.
Putting the NHS under pressure
COVID-19 has put the NHS and its partners under intense pressure, like never before. Analysis of August/September monthly data by NHS England highlights the huge pressures being placed on an over-burdened healthcare sector1. The data highlights longer waiting times for specialist treatment and notably a significant slowing of cancer treatments – just over 20,000 patients started their cancer treatment in August, which is a 20% reduction in a year.
The volume of patients experiencing long delays for treatment at the end of August has again raised important questions about preparedness as the country enters the winter months, with the expected increase in seasonal flu infections, exacerbating the ongoing pressure from COVID-19.
Addressing the challenges
The need to provide patient care outside the hospital environment, wherever possible, has been a recognised solution to alleviate pressure from national healthcare systems for many years. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the need to support patients somewhere other than their normal care setting became paramount almost overnight.
Throughout the pandemic there has been an unprecedented increase in requests for patient care and support. These include patients receiving treatment for a pre-existing condition, participants in clinical trials or those who have self-supported prior to the pandemic using NHS facilities. This has often meant a shift in the care provided. For example, patients with chronic conditions invariably get a regular face-to-face review with their GP or specialist nurse to monitor their condition, but due to restrictions in movement, many GPs and specialists have resorted to telemedicine to maintain regular follow ups with their patients. This shift from face-to-face contact has been widely welcomed by many patients and will likely become a permanent feature in some form with consultations taking place over the phone or via Zoom. While many patients feel empowered by home consultations, they merely address the ‘now’ and do little to ease the backlogs the NHS currently faces.
Healthcare professionals require extra support to help address this. There is also a significant need for specialised training given that phone and online contact is entirely different to face-to-face. Thankfully, there are a number of organisations experienced in delivering both patient solutions and training for HCPs. There is also a realisation from pharma companies that participating, supporting and even funding such programmes will have a huge impact on patient outcomes, both now and in the future.
“This shift from face-to-face contact has been widely welcomed by many patients and will likely become a permanent feature in some form with consultations taking place over the phone or via Zoom”
A new way of working
The industry must recognise that while patients were ‘forced’ to adopt new models of engagement, they have welcomed and embraced them. This new dynamic has created an opportunity for pharma to deliver change that will greatly benefit patients.
In a small study conducted by the Royal Marsden Hospital (RMH) Sarcoma Unit analysing care during the pandemic, patients identified a preference for telephone consultations. The results showed mean satisfaction with telephone consultation was higher than face-to-face consultation (rating 8.99/10 v 8.35/10, respectively) and the majority of patients (80%) indicated they would like some future appointments to be performed using telemedicine. Common reasons for telemedicine preference were reduced travel time (42%), reduced travel expenses (20%) and convenience2 (30%).
The flexibility of the virtual approach has also been bolstered by the increased availability of community nurses as they progressively work from home, spending less time travelling between patients. Populations that fall within the ‘vulnerable’ criteria are invariably not geographically-clustered, which resulted in nurses spending a substantial amount of time travelling pre-pandemic. When working virtually, they have been able to spend more time on patient support activities.
Short-term pain vs long-term gain
While COVID-19 may have blindsided the NHS at the beginning of 2020, it is now, with the support of its partners and a better understanding of how patients have embraced telehealth, in a stronger position.
Healthcare providers are under no illusion about the challenging time that lies ahead, but investments made in technology and new ways of working will soon pay dividends for the NHS, their partners, and ultimately, the patients.
Stephanie Hill is Head of Patient Solutions for Ashfield UK. Go to www.ashfieldhealthcare.com