Digital solutions, such as electronic health records and virtual consultations, offer promising avenues for creating sustainable healthcare systems while ensuring efficient and accessible patient care. Dr Robin Clark reports.
When the UK entered Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, the demand for video consultations sky-rocketed almost overnight.
This is a really striking example of how the pandemic catalysed the already emerging trend towards digital health services and permanently changed people’s attitudes towards their healthcare access.
Digital health infrastructure has huge potential to enhance the patient experience and improve both population health and the work life of healthcare professionals.
Virtual care can reach more people than face-to-face care and is widely seen as more convenient. Many benefits of digitising healthcare, such as reducing the need for patient travel and electronically storing health records, are also reducing our impact on the planet.
Our health is directly linked to the health of our planet. It is impacted by:
Climate changes, such as heatwaves and floods;
Pollution, in the form of air, plastic, light and noise;
Natural habitats, which impact our well-being and vulnerability to infectious diseases.
Digital healthcare and planet health are seemingly then in a positive feedback loop, where using health technologies is reducing our environmental impact, which is improving the health of the planet, which is enhancing people’s health.
Digitalisation and telehealth play a key role in our ambition to be a net zero, resilient health system and, more broadly, are important parts of our corporate strategy to transform our business.
Bupa is embracing digital solutions across its businesses – from dental practices to outpatient clinics and hospitals – connecting patients and healthcare professionals effectively and efficiently to provide the highest-quality sustainable care.
Bupa’s digital platform, Blua, was launched by our business in Spain and is now available for our UK customers.
The app can be used by our Spanish customers to remotely monitor their heart disease, obesity and to monitor pregnancy, reducing the need for patients to travel to hospitals and clinics.
Users can also access a digital prevention programme and record live tracking of their vital signs such as heart rate, breathing rates and blood pressure using their mobile phone camera, as well as having same-day access to virtual consultations with doctors. We’re exploring how we can introduce similar features for our UK customers.
Enhancing access to care and leveraging digital solutions that support prevention and well-being are widely regarded as helping to reduce healthcare resource consumption.
This data-led digital approach to healthcare is also allowing clinicians to diagnose and treat patients with real-time information, making for a precise and personalised experience that can further reduce the environmental impacts of healthcare by eradicating ineffective interventions.
In developing Blua, our Spanish business hasn’t underestimated the importance of bringing customers along on our sustainability journey. So now when a patient in Spain attends a video consultation – or downloads a medical report to the Blua app instead of visiting a clinic to collect results – an estimation of the avoided emissions is shared with the patient via the Bupa app.
We hope to offer this function to our UK customers in time.
Shared learnings from our colleagues in our Spanish business, Sanitas, have shown that, in 2022, Bupa patients avoided over 8,000 net tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to powering 1,008 homes for a year – as a result of 771,002 video consultations and downloading 3,662,352 medical reports digitally.
The Carbon Trust helped with this calculation of avoided emissions, which involved adding together the carbon savings associated with patient travel and document printing, while subtracting the emissions from video-conferencing.
Electronic health records
Alongside digitising patient records, consent forms and health insurance policies in Blua in Spain, we’ve been piloting electronic medication administration records (eMAR) across care homes in the UK.
eMARs are electronic patient records that are used to document information about medications, often used on hand-held devices such as smartphones, rather than using a paper form.
At the moment, six Bupa care homes and one retirement village are using eMAR, and the current plan is to deliver eMAR across all care homes and villages before May 2024.
Alongside the reduction in our printing and paper use, eMAR will significantly reduce the time it takes to provide safe medication administration to residents, helping to improve their clinical outcomes.
Further afield, Bupa’s medical provision in Hong Kong, Quality HealthCare, is replacing physical films for X-ray, CT, MRI and PET scans with digital versions at all western medicine and diagnostics and imaging centres.
This operational change will save around ten tonnes of plastic films a year, the equivalent of around 400,000 plastic bottles.
In the UK and Spain, Bupa dental clinics have introduced intra-oral scanners to increase precision, efficiency and convenience.
These digital scanners produce none of the clinical waste of traditional dental impressions, which use plastic trays, alginate powder and the ‘forever chemical’ poly-vinyl siloxane (PVS), which never breaks down and may have hormone-disrupting properties.
Patients are also saved from unnecessary travel when adjustments or recreations of moulds are required, reducing our emissions associated with travel.
Bupa is offering a remote skin assessment service using a smartphone app that allows customers to send images of concerning moles and skin lesions for assessment by a qualified dermatologist.
Results are given within two working days, which compares very favourably to a traditional face-to-face care journey.
So far in 2023, our advisers have helped nearly 3,000 customers who have received a fast and convenient diagnosis by their clinician.
Because the patient can use the app without leaving their home, the environmental impact of their care is reduced by eliminating the need for travel and clinical resource consumption – such as electricity or personal protective equipment.
Looking to the future
Further digitalisation of health services is helping Bupa and other UK organisations, such as the NHS and Ramsay Health Care, continue to reduce the impact on the planet, while also offering convenient, efficient and effective care to patients.
Decision-making on the role of digital solutions should always be clinically led and based on individual care needs, preferences and sustainability considerations.
Ultimately, we see digital services as supporting, but not altogether replacing, the traditional, in-person provision of quality healthcare.
Dr Robin Clark (right) is medical director for Bupa Global and UK Insurance