Demand for digital health as Brits avoid medical care during pandemic

New research reveals that during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Britons have actively avoided seeking in-person medical care due to concerns for their safety, with more than a third (38%) keeping away for fear of catching coronavirus in hospitals, doctors surgeries, and medical clinics.

According to the S3 Connected Health research, which was conducted among 2,000 UK consumers, overall nearly 10m Brits (15%) – including 3.6m (19%) people with chronic or long-term illnesses – have actively avoided seeking in-person medical care during the pandemic. Since COVID started: 12% of chronic patients have cancelled an in-person medical appointment, while 1 in 7 (14%) have put off scheduling or attending routine screening tests.

The findings raise valid concerns over the long-term impact this scale of medical avoidance could have on population health, the management of chronic disease, and already strained healthcare systems.

When asked why they have avoided seeking in-person treatment:

  • 39% do not feel safe from COVID-19 in a clinical setting
  • 37% won’t feel safe receiving in-person care until after the pandemic
  • 18% don’t believe clinical settings are doing enough to stop the spread of the virus
  • 17% visited a clinical setting during the pandemic and no longer feel safe doing so

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the NHS has made monumental efforts to increase the use of digital technology to help reduce in-person contact and curb the spread of the virus.

One in 6 (17%) admitted their desire to avoid clinical settings means they are now more likely to use digital healthcare solutions, such as apps and connected devices, although a similar number (16%) did not know digital solutions were already an option.

In fact, an even larger number – over half (57%) – said they would be willing to use digital healthcare solutions to support or supplement in-clinic care if offered by their GP.

Not only did 41% of consumers feel that digital healthcare would be safer than in-clinic appointments due to COVID-19, but the same number believe a shift to digital health will alleviate pressure on the NHS during the pandemic by reducing the need for in-clinic care.

Dr Kevin Hanley, Senior Clinical Consultant at S3 Connected Health, said: “It’s worrying that so many consumers – especially those with pre-existing health conditions – are avoiding or cancelling in-person medical appointments due to fear for their safety in clinical settings. If this isn’t resolved quickly, and consumers continue to put off treatment, it could result in patients being treated for more serious conditions further down the line, and put even more pressure on the NHS as we battle the subsequent waves of the pandemic.

“With millions of us facing winter lockdowns, digital healthcare solutions – from video consultations to smart health devices – could offer a vital life-line to consumers in need of medical care: helping monitor our general health and wellbeing, enabling care provision to continue remotely, and negating the risk of infection by minimizing the need for face-to-face meetings between doctors and patients. Wider spread adoption would likely help to combat consumer fear – and improve patient outcomes at the same time.”

When asked how their healthcare experience could be improved, 23% of consumers said they would like to see more ‘virtual-first’ appointments, 23% want in-clinic care reserved for emergencies only, while 18% want access to wearable devices that allow them to track their health at home.

Jim O’Donoghue, President at S3 Connected Health, adds: “COVID-19 has undoubtedly accelerated the rate at which digital technologies have been incorporated into healthcare systems across the globe, sparked by the need to facilitate care provision remotely and minimize the risk of infection by reducing face-to-face meetings between doctors and patients. This shift to remote and virtual care will be a long-term reality for the industry, so it’s reassuring to see the appetite for digital health is there.”

All research findings are presented in S3 Connected Health’s report: The Growth of Digital Health in the COVID-19 Era downloadable here.