Digital tools in the fight against COVID-19  | Deloitte Netherlands


Digital tools in the fight against COVID-19

Edge Fellow Lucien Engelen on healthcare innovation in times of crisis

The global healthcare sector is facing unprecedented challenges due to the outbreak of the worldwide pandemic. It is precisely in this crisis situation that digital tools such as videoconferencing, remote monitoring and data analysis can make a valuable contribution, says Lucien Engelen, Edge Fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge. ‘The coronavirus is causing a shift.’

The coronavirus is making it palpably clear that the world knows no borders when it comes to health. “First and foremost, the virus is having consequences for the victims and their families, of course,” says Engelen. “Hospitals are operating at maximum capacity in order to treat people and save lives. But daily life is being disrupted as well – people cannot go to work, schools are closed, stock markets have crashed and the economy is experiencing major hits. Society is being wounded to its core.”

Video calling with colleagues and patients

Digital tools can play an important role in the current situation, which is aimed at preventing as many new contaminations as possible. “We must have as little physical contact with each other as possible in order to prevent new cases. At the same time, there is a great need for accessible communication right now,” says Engelen. But even though apps and video calling are commonplace in our personal lives, this is not yet the case in the healthcare sector. Communication takes place by post, and, incredibly, even by fax at times. Engelen says there are all sorts of reasons for this: entrenched practices, presumed legal obstacles and, for example, the fact that physicians were not compensated for digital consultations until recently.

Engelen believes that the coronavirus is causing a shift. “Applications enabling video calling in healthcare are now being rolled-out at an accelerated pace. Take healthcare professionals who are at home due to symptoms of the common cold. They aren’t allowed to physically go to work but are still able to function just fine. They can still remotely assist their colleagues with the help of video calling.” Video calling can also facilitate contact between physicians and scientists around the globe. “We must work together in the fight against COVID-19 – between countries, between institutions, between hospital wards. There has never been more cooperation in the healthcare sector between China, Europe and the USA than there is now. The situation is compelling this cooperation, and technology is making it possible. Necessity is currently driving digital healthcare because other manners of communication are impossible or dangerous.

Ultimately, video calling can be a way to maintain contact with patients at home. “Using videoconferencing, healthcare professionals can safely maintain contact with patients who are in isolation in their homes: a video quarantine interview, if you will.”

Remote monitoring

There are also tools for monitoring patients remotely. “Dutch ICUs have over a thousand beds, and this capacity is now being nearly doubled,” says Engelen. “But eventually patients may need to be treated at other wards in the hospital, outside of the ICU.” In this case it will be useful to remotely monitor patients with the help of digital tools.

Smart patches allow remote monitoring of a number of a patient’s vital signs, such as respiration, temperature and pulse. “The patch is affixed to the patient’s chest and enables you to remotely keep an eye on how the patient is doing,” says Engelen. “This greatly reduces the amount of standard checks-ups, allowing healthcare professionals to concentrate on people requiring acute care.” A patch also permits permanent monitoring, which can be more effective than incidental check-ups by a healthcare provider. “The system immediately sends an alarm if the patient’s condition worsens, sometimes even before the patient or doctor is aware of this.”

Remote monitoring allows patients to stay home longer, says Engelen. “This not only alleviates the pressure on hospitals and primary care physicians but allows patients to recuperate in the comfort of their own home, which they commonly prefer. They don’t need to go to the hospital until this is truly necessary.” Engelen also mentions that remote monitoring can be used for prevention. “In these difficult times it can be a good idea to provide such a patch to the elderly residents of nursing homes as a preventive measure, for example.”

Data analysis and information provision; opportunities and dangers

Big data, complex models and artificial intelligence are helping to closely track the spread of COVID-19. This is allowing researchers to forecast how interventions could help manage the virus, and they are now exploring various scenarios. “Rapid developments in data analysis and artificial intelligence are of great added value during this crisis, and we’ve seen more graphics in recent weeks than ever before,” says Engelen.

The Internet plays an important role in providing information to citizens. The RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment), the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and websites such as give citizens reliable and current information. But online information also has a downside, Engelen warns. “Fake news is currently also being spread by malicious parties, and emails about COVID-19 that contain malware are circulating.” He points to the many unexpected consequences that the global health crisis can have, such as the fact that countries and companies are more vulnerable to cyber attacks due to the lack of IT personnel.

Exponential thinking and the importance of innovation

Engelen says that the worldwide pandemic is once again showing us that we must learn to think exponentially. “Our brain is not used to thinking exponentially; we tend to think in linear patterns. This leads us to underestimate the severity of the situation and be behind the times. We think that tomorrow may look a bit different than today, not that tomorrow may suddenly look completely different. The reality of a pandemic, for example – just as with many technological developments – is that its course is often exponential.”

The healthcare sector is currently facing perhaps its greatest challenge in modern history. Treating people and saving lives, on a scale that today’s society has never before experienced, is the priority now. In the long run the coronavirus situation can provide us with valuable insight with respect to the importance of innovation, says Engelen. “Technology can help keep healthcare good, safe, accessible and affordable. Let us use all the technology and knowledge we have to allow healthcare institutions to function as optimally as they can.”

Edge Fellows from Center for the Edge

Deloitte Center for the Edge explores the role of emerging technologies and social changes. It helps leaders in industry and the government understand what fundamental changes they face and what opportunities and challenges are involved, in both the short and the long term.

Edge Fellows are visionaries linked to the Center for the Edge. Using their own expertise, they advise Deloitte and their customers on how to prepare for the future. They want to make a positive impact on the world and are not afraid to think out of the box. Edge Fellows play a non-commercial, independent and neutral role, both in Deloitte and externally.

CV of Lucien Engelen (1962)

1985-2003 Management family firm Engelen Groep, Roermond
2002-2007 Director regional ambulance service Limburg-Noord
2007-2010 Head Acute Zorgregio Oost, advisor Radboudumc, Nijmegen
2010-2018 Founder and director REshape Center, Radboudumc, Nijmegen
1991 – present CEO of Transform.Health and global keynote speaker
2011 – present Core member of faculty Exponential Medicine, Singularity University (US)
2019 – present Edge Fellow and Global Strategist Digital Health at Deloitte Center for the Edge

Did you find this useful?