COVID-19: It’s all silver lining (#HIMSSEurope20 – Day 1)

Cheerleading about the benefits of digital health defines any Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference – and #HIMSSEurope20 is certainly no exception.

Having been postponed from June and moved from Helsinki into the virtual world because of the COVID19 pandemic, what makes this year’s HIMSS Europe conference unique is that there is actually lots of cheer about in the digital health community right now.

The requirement that health care systems transform from in-person to virtual visits to maintain physical distancing and the safety of both patients and physicians as well as other providers has forced health care around the world to embrace virtual care and digital health solutions to an unprecedented degree.

This silver lining to the current pandemic was the main theme throughout the first day of plenary sessions at the conference hosted in a sophisticated digital setting with attendees from 98 countries around the world.

This was not the venue to discuss the COVID19-related death tolls in Italy and Spain and elsewhere, the elderly dying unattended in long-term care homes, and the ominous threat of the second wave. Rather, hyperbole ran rampant as representatives from the UK to Portugal discussed how physicians and hospitals adapted to the new reality within days if not weeks. “No country would have been able to manage COVID without digital health” said Lav Agarwal, joint secretary of the Indian ministry of health and family welfare.

Second to virtual care as a topic were examples of how electronic records and patient portals facilitated the efficient management of COVID testing and contact tracing and bed management in critical care. However, speakers such as Dr. Tracy Pankhurst, chief clinical information officer at University Hospitals, Birmingham also noted that the public would be “horrified” at the inability of many systems to collect and process the most basic data needed measure the pandemic in part because of the lack of interoperability and common definitions.

To their credit, many speakers from HIMSS CEO Hal Wolff and World Health Organization regional director for Europe Hans Kluge on down touched on the inequitable impact of COVID and the disproportionate toll it has taken on the disadvantaged – coupled with the need to make sure digital solutions bridge rather than widen this gap.

In panels weighted heavily with family physicians and critical care specialists, the key role primary care physicians have played in adapting their practices to digital visits and in managing the pandemic was also an underlying theme. Striking was the situation in Catalonia detailed by Dr. Josep Vidal-Alaball, head of the Central Catalonia Innovation and Research Primary Care Unit. He described how many small family physician offices had to close as physicians and staff went into quarantine while at the same time family physicians had to assume care in long-term care homes.

Another digital health theme touched on first again by Wolff was the need to balance the protection of individual privacy with the desire to have aggregate data to support population health initiatives – a discussion which seems to have dropped into the background in Canada.

Once again in the early stages of this conference, the leading positions held by Finland and Estonia in implelmenting digital health solutions as well as impressive scaling of digital health in the British National Health Service were in evidence. But it was also noted that around the globe the implementation of telemedicine has been inconsistent both between countries and within jurisdictions.

While Canada is obviously not a major player in this Eurocentric conference it is interesting that we are one of the only two non-European countries to have a pavilion on the virtual 3D exhibition floor, showcasing digital health companies based here.

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