BASEL - The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply accelerated the use of digital technologies in the health sector. For many no longer able to obtain in-person care, access to virtual health services has become a matter of life and death.
This revolution will not end when the pandemic does, but without thoughtful stewardship a digital divide may exacerbate health inequities. Above all, guiding the future of virtual health so that no one is left behind requires learning from the past 18 months and asking the right questions.
From its earliest months, the pandemic triggered a massive shift to virtual health services. In France,1 the number of telehealth consultations rose to 4.5 million from 40,000 between February and April 2020. In India,2 online health consultations among people over 50 jumped 502 percent last year. Global investment in digital health doubled year on year in 20203 to US$21.6 billion, and non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations - from the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development to the World Health Organization (WHO) - sharpened their focus on the issue.
The surge in virtual health services during the pandemic has entailed many policy changes and new ways of doing business. Some of these were beneficial and will serve as a foundation for further progress, but the rapidity of the changes has often meant haphazard execution and uneven results.
It is still too early to settle on a definitive post-pandemic vision for virtual health services, and how each country approaches it must of course be tailored to local contexts, but the right questions to ask in shaping this fast-growing global sector’s future can begin to be identified.
First, what true value can these services provide? If virtual health is regarThe content herein is subject to copyright by Project Syndicate. All rights reserved. The content of the services is owned or licensed to The Yuan. The copying or storing of any content for anything other than personal use is expressly prohibited without prior written permission from The Yuan, or the copyright holder identified in the copyright notice contained in the content.