The delivery of healthcare has changed in the UK, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the availability and adoption of digital capabilities. This has not only improved how healthcare professionals can interact with and monitor patients but has enabled people to access the care they need in the most challenging of times.

The Digital Revolution – the advancement of technology which has transformed our lives since the late 1980s – is heralding a complete momentous change across healthcare with Big Data transforming how clinical trials are run and the development and delivery of new medicines. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are speeding up processes and the advancement of digital tools and devices are helping deliver better, more personalised care.

But as digitisation continues apace, it has also exposed the stark inequality and inequity across healthcare. In fact, the pandemic has revealed an uncomfortable truth – that society’s most vulnerable become even more vulnerable when faced with unprecedented challenges.

“For me, the pandemic threw into the spotlight the significant inequalities we have in our society,” says Nicole Farmer, General Manager, UK & Ireland, Sanofi Genzyme. 

“Many of those who are disadvantaged appear to be a lot more adversely affected through the pandemic. In fact, their disadvantage grew in terms of its impact. Whether that be access to a computer and the internet for home schooling or continued access to health services.”

“There are stark differences in health outcomes across the UK – with a gap of almost 19 years in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas in England. Inequalities in power, money and resources at local and national levels can make people’s daily lives more challenging. In turn, this can make people more vulnerable to poor health.” - The Health Foundation

The reality of digital exclusion in the UK

According to The King’s Fund1, digital technology is integral to many of the advances envisaged in the NHS long-term plan which was published in 2019 and sets out key ambitions for the service over the following 10 years. It includes ambitions to increase care and support for people in their own homes using remote monitoring and digital tools.

A big barrier to implementing new technologies is the issue of “digital exclusion” with evidence from the Office for National Statistics2 suggesting that it is more likely to affect specific groups of the population, including older and disabled people. This means it is often those with the greatest health needs who are likely to be less able to engage with - and benefit from - digital services. In 2018, figures revealed3 that 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10 per cent of the nation’s adult population, were considered to be “internet non-users”.

Farmer says: “The pandemic highlighted to us that healthcare inequality also extended to some of the patients that we serve who have chronic illnesses. A lot of people were unable to engage remotely with a healthcare professional simply because they could not access or afford digital technology.”

The endless possibilities for improving care and outcomes

It is clear that digital transformation holds great promise for the prevention and treatment of illness and will improve both the quality of care and even outcomes for patients. But it is vital that getting the best care is not determined by a patient’s ability to access to the internet or being able to use technology or devices.

That is why we at Sanofi recently donated 40 iPads which have been taken out of service within the company to Pharmaxo, a specialist pharmacy provider and clinical homecare company operating across the UK. These will be used by patients who otherwise would not have access to digital technology, improving their care and having a positive impact on their health.

Alison Davis, Managing Director at Pharmaxo, says: “The face of healthcare is changing quite dramatically within the UK and that was accelerated because of the global pandemic. We know that society needs better enabled digital technology for patients so that primary and secondary care can be better integrated.

“The global pandemic has made life really difficult for some patients, so being able to provide iPads to people who otherwise don't have access to digital technology is something we really wanted to be a part of.

“The possibilities are endless once you're able to reach a patient so whether that is a virtual consultation or whether it's enhancements to digital healthcare apps that help us to support patients to be in better control of their illness and their medication in order to deliver better long-term outcomes.”

From left to right: Paula Boutel, Head of Trade UK & Ireland, Melanie Cotter, Homecare and Hospital Channel Manager UK & Ireland, Nicole Farmer, General Manager, UK & Ireland, Sanofi Genzyme, Alison Davis, Managing Director Pharmaxo Pharmacy Services, Christina Wright, Pharma Services Lead Pharmaxo Pharmacy Services

Ensuring no one is left behind

Across Sanofi, everyone is continually challenging themselves to think about ways in which we can do better for more people, for as diverse a group of people as possible. Our agile approach to work means we are not constrained - we ask the tough questions, challenge the status quo and generate ideas which may go against the grain.

We believe that every opportunity to contribute to better patient inclusion and care is worthwhile and must be taken – no matter how small it may appear. The benefit to patients of simple tech solutions such as making iPads available cannot be underestimated. Ensuring access to all is a vital part of ensuring patients’ health and wellbeing is front and centre.

According to Farmer: “There were a number of people who weren't able to access medical support through the pandemic because they just didn't have the resources to do that. 

“So it was with that in mind, that we were really keen to be able to partner with Pharmaxo and donate some iPads for their patients so they could go some way towards addressing some of this inequality in society, help overcome health disparities and ensure patients who are offline are not left behind.”