Health Tech World speaks to Ash Thornley-Davies of Zoom about the role of telehealth in the NHS Hospitals at Home programme and the new innovations that are helping usher in a new era in digital health.
The UK government recently announced plans to expand the Hospital at Home programme, a scheme that aims to provide patients with hospital-level care in their own homes.
Telehealth services will inevitably play a huge role in making these plans a reality.
One of the world’s most recognised video conferencing tools, Zoom, is seeking to position itself at the heart of this digital transformation.
The platform had built a solid reputation as a reliable video conferencing tool, primarily for businesses, but after the pandemic hit, the platform experienced a huge surge in popularity.
10 million daily meeting participants in 2019 skyrocketed to 300 million in 2020.
Now, the service is integrating into the NHS to streamline its communications and enable a new era of telemedicine.
“What the COVID period did was enable everybody to get to the same benchmark,” Ash Thornley-Davies, account executive for healthcare & NHS at Zoom, told Health Tech World.
“Prior to 2019, telehealth was seen as a nice to have, and then 2020 came and it was a must-have.”
In an effort to reduce hospital admissions, the Hospitals At Home programme aims to see 40-50 virtual ward ‘beds’ per 100,000 population by December 2023. This amounts to around half a million patients.
As the NHS faces unprecedented pressure from growing waiting lists, telemedicine platforms are to be scaled up to meet the demand.
Putting the Hospitals at Home concept into practice
Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London implemented Zoom as part of its strategy to adapt to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
GOSH, known as one of Europe’s most digitally-able hospitals, integrated Zoom’s video-visit capabilities within eight days, effectively creating a “hospital without walls” during the global health crisis.
The hospital also integrated Zoom into its electronic patient record (EPR) system, Epic.
This integration allowed for the scheduling and launching of video visits within the existing Epic workflow.
The impact of Zoom at GOSH has been significant, with video visits accounting for 24 per cent of all outpatient appointments, compared to less than 1 per cent prior to the pandemic.
GOSH is now considering expanding its use of Zoom to include multi-party visits, interpreter services and improved connectivity for patients and their families.
“Great Ormond Street Hospital rolled out Zoom to their 5000 staff at the start of the pandemic. They preempted that they were going to need to deliver virtual care,” Thornley-Davies said.
“They didn’t want to just deliver this as a standalone service because it adds pressure and frustration to their service users.
“We worked with Great Ormond Street to roll out Zoom to all of their staff 5000 staff in eight days.
“The vision for Great Ormond Street was to build a hospital without walls which really plays into the hospitals at home mentality.”
The environmental impact of video visits
The NHS is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions in the UK.
According to the British Medical Association, NHS England is responsible for 40 per cent of the public sector’s emissions.
A large portion of the health service’s footprint derives from patients driving to their hospital appointments, many of which could be conducted remotely.
The NHS has promised to reach net zero by 2045, but achieving this target won’t be an easy task.
“Virtual appointments play a really big part in that because they’re reducing the number of cars on the road and reducing the pure cost of having patients in a building,” Thronley-Davies said.
“In terms of environmental impact, telehealth is helping the NHS to reduce their emissions, which is great.
“But also from an accessibility point of view, you don’t need to find your way to a hospital; it can be accessed digitally.”
Making telehealth more accessible
Making healthcare services accessible to diverse populations is critical.
Zoom is seeking to address language barriers with features like its live transcription and interpreter, which are being used during group therapy and consultations.
The interpreter function enables participants to receive real-time translations in their preferred languages.
This has been particularly beneficial in multicultural areas like central northwest London, where various native languages are spoken.
With a wide range of languages being added to the platform, the live transcription feature empowers both patients and healthcare consultants to navigate language differences seamlessly.
The future holds even more possibilities for these transcriptions.
When coupled with conversational AI, transcriptions can be fed back into patient records, reducing the amount of paperwork burden on healthcare staff.
“This could be something as simple as ‘You spoke to this patient about their long-term condition, they mentioned this as a symptom, you haven’t written this as a note. Would you like to add it?’
“I think it will really improve the experience for both sides.”
Looking to the future
Digital health is set to make further steps forward over the coming years as technologies like conversational AI and augmented reality are brought into the mix.
These advancements are not meant to replace clinicians and healthcare workers, Thornley-Davies said, but rather alleviate some of the burdens they currently face, particularly in mundane tasks that can be automated.
For instance, AI can be utilised to monitor and manage resources like oxygen tanks in hospitals. The integration of AI can act as a valuable second pair of hands, supporting healthcare professionals in their daily responsibilities.
Zoom has its own AI element, Virtual Agent, which can sit on a web page as a chatbot.
“Where we’re seeing the most interest in healthcare at the moment is helping in mental health pathways for self-referral,” Thornley-Davies said.
“Typically, in the past, NHS Trusts have forms on webpages and depending on the postcode you’re in or which form you go to, it can be really stressful to try and find the right document to fill in.
“Conversational AI is being explored as a way to reduce the burden, reduce the anxiety of patients needing help by enabling them to go to the Chatbot ask for help and be routed through to the right part of that website for support.
“Equally, if they’re in crisis, there is then that option to say ‘if you need help now’, we can then either escalate that to a live agent to speak to through to a video call straightaway or give them appropriate guidance depending on the outcome of those conversations to make sure that they’re not going to come to any harm.”
Meanwhile, augmented reality and virtual reality devices have shown promise, especially in the realms of training and education.
One compelling application is the ability to provide doctors in training with a first-person perspective of surgical procedures.
This advancement has the potential to level up skill levels globally as access to tech-enabled medical education becomes more accessible than ever before.
While the future of telehealth is still unfolding, these advancements hold the promise of a more efficient, interconnected and globally accessible healthcare system.
“Where we see the future going with Zoom in healthcare is this digital front door,” Thornley-Davies said.
“Enhancing care from the moment of either going to a website or the hospital or through the front door.
“This will be things such as conversational AI, using that to signpost patients to the right place, right through to a whole immersive experience.
“That could be having a video conferencing kiosk in your GP practice or in your pharmacy for those who don’t have access at home.”
Zoom currently has over 200 clinical integrations across the healthcare system and the company intends to continue this push.
“The medical side of things is forever changing,” Thornley-Davies said. “Integrations into blood pressure monitors, into medical carts, into anything you can imagine, Zoom is really that enabler between a medical system and a patient.
“We’re the bridge between the two.”