What will be the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) on health and healthcare? Imperial College Business School thought leadership suggests that digital leadership, agile and frugal innovation, and patient engagement particularly around data privacy should be important focus areas for healthcare leaders.

  1. Digital leadership

In 2019 the NHS Long Term Plan aimed to make digitally-enabled primary and outpatient care mainstream across the NHS by 2030. This long-term ambition has suddenly become an immediate necessity. Telehealth - or healthcare at a distance - has become the norm for many during the pandemic. In June 2020 it was estimated that 85% of primary care consultations in the UK were being done remotely.

As the first lockdown took hold, Imperial’s Professor James Barlow and Melody Ni argued that telehealth had finally ‘come of age’. This has since been backed by an emerging pool of evidence. In June 2020 a BMA survey of General Practitioners in the UK found that nearly 90% believed remote consultations are likely to be a permanent feature of how health care is provided in the future. Analysts forecast significant growth in market segments such as the online doctor consultation market.

But implementing telehealth and other digital innovations at scale for the long term must be done sensitively, focussing on inclusivity, quality and patient experience. Health Watch has collated patient experiences of digital interactions with healthcare professionals during the pandemic. The findings show that technology can be alienating - particularly for those who cannot access digital tools due to disability or lack of access to the internet. Further research has stressed the limits of telemedicine: for example touch is an important aspect of patient assessment and care that cannot easily be replicated. Imperial’s Institute of Global Health Innovation is exploring these important issues in a project led by Dr Ana Luisa Neves supported by Imperial’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

  1. Agile and frugal innovation

The urgent need for action in response to Covid-19 inspired many remarkable advances and Imperial has been at the forefront of innovation. It is pioneering a new approach to vaccine development based on self-amplifying RNA and using a new social enterprise-based innovation model to accelerate global vaccine distribution at affordable prices.  The UK Government has ordered nearly 6 million of Imperial Professor Chris Toumazou’s 90 minute lab-free Covid-19 tests, a technology brought to market at rapid pace during lockdown.

Barlow and Ni think the urgent need to innovate at pace during the pandemic could inspire new approaches to accelerating healthcare innovation.  But Imperial economist Dame Professor Carol Propper foresees that the health sector will face even greater long-term budget and staffing pressures as a result of the pandemic without increased investment. Therefore frugal innovation will be a watchword. Lean innovation models such as those used by financially constrained startups could become more widely adopted, along with innovation frameworks such as the Lean and Agile Multi-dimensional Process (LAMP) developed by researchers at Imperial College London. 

  1. Patient engagement and data privacy

Covid-19 and initiatives such as contract tracing have put healthcare data in the spotlight. Accurate and comprehensive data are vital for rapid policy making and fuel innovation in areas such as healthcare AI.

But for data-driven innovation to happen, the healthcare sector must build patient trust and confidence in data science and associated technologies. According to the report by the Business School and Imperial’s Data Science Institute, ‘Privacy, Adoption and Truthful Reporting: A Simple Theory of Contact Tracing Applications’, uptake of Covid-19 contact tracing apps is determined by perception of risks to the individual and social preferences, rather than the wider health benefits to society. Systems for collecting and sharing patient data must be consent based and their necessity and value to individuals communicated.

There are many further major barriers to facilitating widespread data-driven innovation – for example Imperial research in 2019 showed that in the UK almost a quarter of hospitals still use paper rather than electronic records. Those that did have electronic records used different systems, hindering data sharing.

Learning opportunities for health and care professionals

Business School academics are applying their expertise to understand unprecedented implications of the pandemic for the economy, business, technology, health and the environment.

Our courses can be studied via a range of study modes both online and on-campus to provide flexibility for leaders to learn, debate and develop their skills safely in this rapidly changing world.


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