Why “digital” shouldn’t replace the human touch

Digital enthusiasts are right to be optimistic, but tech solutions are not a panacea. In the Nordics, countries are refining big data and laying the foundations for large-scale preventive healthcare. In France, online companies are tentatively eliminating healthcare silos and in the UK, apps and Skype calls are filling the gap in provision for mental health services. But the hype for digital solutions can lead providers astray.

This is particularly evident in social care. HBI recently interviewed a provider of domiciliary care who was deeply sceptical about the benefits of patient-facing ‘digital solutions’. The company started out with a website that used an algorithm to match carers and clients, “but we had completely missed the need,” the CEO told us. “Patients didn’t want some smart pairing solution. They wanted human contact, reassurance and for us to take care of all that behind the scenes.” The algorithm is now an operational tool for staff to locate the carers instead.

If families need human reassurance when deciding on care for vulnerable loved ones, it makes sense to assess the capacity of digital solutions to meet the need of other vulnerable groups – not least those with mental illness. Apps and Skype calls might benefit the more functionally ill for a while, but does mental illness not have roots that go far deeper than what an app, some Skype sessions or a chatbot can achieve? Long-term, patients suffering from mental illness are more likely to need robust human solutions, not digital ones.

There’s an argument that digital solutions, where helpful, can free up capacity for healthcare systems creaking under the pressure of rising demand and tight budgets. Telemedicine has vast potential to reach more patients more efficiently. AI can crunch large data sets to improve service efficiency and provide preventive care. We’re just beginning to deploy such solutions at scale, so time will tell what digital can really deliver.

In the meantime, questions are being raised around how to improve patient engagement, which can be poor. What do patients really need from a digital solution? Where can such solutions be best placed to leverage their potential? Providers should be wary about investing in digital for digital’s sake. An investment in people may sometimes be the better option.

We would welcome your thoughts on this story. Email your views to Anaïs Charles or call 0207 183 3779.