The future of healthcare is arriving sooner than many expected. If there is to be a positive legacy for the sector from Covid-19, it may well be this. A timeline that once looked at change in the healthcare industry in terms of decades has, somewhat ironically, been accelerated by the very thing that challenged it to its core over the last year.

While daily headlines draw our attention to strained hospitals and ICU wards, frontline care in all forms is wrestling with the pandemic. Those behind day-to-day, non-emergency care have also been contending with transforming their operations remotely.

Because of these pressures, we’ve seen the NHS jolted into the digital age. Now we must move quickly to ensure the innovation forged during this difficult period creates a lasting impact for good.

Yet a reluctance to drive the NHS into a new digital era means the health system is now marred by creaking, outdated IT systems and a number of point solutions responding to Covid-19 while disjointed policymaking often fails to look at the bigger picture: long-term patient benefit.

As a result, scepticism around the potential for primary care to be delivered in innovative ways, such as remotely, has slowed progress – until now. Catalysed by the Covid-19 pandemic, patient care is rapidly shifting out of the hospital setting. With hospitals now synonymous with an increased risk of infection, the growing trend of remote care not only provides greater convenience but is also safer for patients.

Make no mistake, this evolution has in no small part been due to necessity. As part of the reaction to the pandemic, practitioners were forced to limit in-person consultation. There was initially concern about whether this would be possible, but not only has remote consultation proved to be highly functional, it has exploded in popularity.

The trend of virtual appointments was already on the rise as new private tech companies entered the market and sold to the NHS, but now the realisation of the efficiency savings to be made by the healthcare system, public or private, means that this trend will be here to stay. It is worth stressing that these appointments are not right for every interaction.

With staff shortages and lengthy waiting lists set to be a permanent fixture for the foreseeable future, there will be emphasis placed on building out the remote services that have been established. The idea’s potential is not limited to practitioner-patient appointments; video calls have transformed the convening of multidisciplinary diagnostic teams and back-office processes too.

Regional disparities in the backlog of appointments, diagnosis and treatment also have the potential to be resolved by remote operations. For example, NHS staff vacancies in London stand at 10.7 per cent, while vacancies in Yorkshire and the North East are almost half this rate, at 5.5 per cent. By centralising routine appointments that can be done remotely, the sector can eliminate capacity issues based on geography.

It is not only virtual GP appointments that have benefitted from remote operations, but hospital clinics too. The idea of digital clinics and even virtual hospitals would likely have been scoffed at twelve months ago, as consultants have often highlighted understandable concerns around the lack of the “human” element of remote assessment for patients with complex healthcare needs. Diagnosis and monitoring has proven to be possible and most importantly, effective, when carried out remotely.

Of course, there are limitations to this. Many ailments cannot be identified through a screen and require in-person consultation. Often it is down to frontline care workers who recognise their patient’s condition has worsened. Then you have the elderly or non-digitally savvy patients that do not have sufficient technology proficiency to engage.

Elsewhere, the debate around how patient data is managed must be reopened as a priority, if remote healthcare is to prevail. It is another question altogether as to what can be done with this data. Data held on devices such as wearable health trackers and apps to monitor wellbeing have seen concerns around data privacy rise to prominence, not just for security reasons but due to how third parties with commercial interest are accessing it.

On the other hand, using personal data effectively is key for the success of remote care. If you can bring everyone round the table – healthcare workers, pharmacists, community care givers – the industry will remove barriers to a slicker care experience. Keeping it in silos, however, will stagnate the potential of remote healthcare.

Whether or not the technology infrastructure is in place, the increased health consciousness that is coming to the fore is laying the foundations for the underlying social change required. For example, we have seen remote monitoring of vital signs such as heart and respiration rate continue to surge in popularity. Tools such as wearable health monitors mark a turning point in the relentless routine check-ups for those with conditions such as diabetes, with the advent of devices such as blood pressure cuffs encouraging autonomous monitoring of key health markers.

Even with these trends gaining momentum, years of underinvestment and a reliance on legacy systems have left healthcare workers cut off from the tools they need to do their jobs properly. Now, society-wide attitude change has primed the public for the adoption of self-care as the first port of call in health management. Digital consultations will mark the first step.

When it comes to impactful, large-scale transformation in the healthcare sector, such as the introduction of remote care, the appetite is now well and truly there.

Rachel Murphy is CEO of Difrent.