Will the Digital Health Surge During COVID-19 Last?

Aug. 26, 2020
Work still needs to be done to meet consumers’ digital health expectations, according to Accenture researchers

The global pandemic greatly accelerated the adoption of digital healthcare—but will it persist? Before the crisis, growth in consumer digital health adoption had stalled, but now, COVID-19 may serve to resume the maturation, according to new research from Accenture.

Prior to the pandemic, one-third of U.S. consumers surveyed (33 percent) were not using any digital tools to manage their health. Use of mobile devices and applications fell from nearly half (48 percent) using these tools in 2018 to only 35 percent in the 2020 study. Use of wearable technology—for instance, devices that collect health data such as fitness and vitals—has decreased from 33 percent in 2018 to just 18 percent in 2020, according to the Accenture research, which included responses from nearly 8,000 consumers spanning across seven countries.

More specifically, use among younger generations dropped significantly. Mobile apps went from 63 percent for those ages 18 to 34 in 2018 to 50 percent in 2020, with wearables use sinking from 43 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2019 (not only has the fitness-tracker fad cooled, but general purpose smart watches are stealing market share). Use among those 65 years of age and older is holding steady, with 20 percent using mobile apps in 2019 compared to 19 percent in 2018, and 13 percent using wearables in 2019 compared to 15 percent in 2018.

Undeniably, COVID-19 forced a digital health surge. The virtual care explosion in response to the pandemic has been well-documented, as by early April, a majority of consultations already were via telehealth. Many providers and patients quickly discovered virtual services to be more attractive than they had imagined, according to the Accenture researchers, who noted that “This historic change brings healthcare providers and payers an unprecedented chance to permanently shift the default care model to virtual services for many medical needs: going from forced to voluntary digital health adoption.”

Beyond the urgency that drove adoption during the pandemic, consumers say they want virtual care services. If given the option, many healthcare consumers would choose virtual for basic care services, and even for specialty care. Many say they “definitely” or “probably” would receive health and wellness advisories (62 percent) or remote monitoring of ongoing health issues through at-home devices (57 percent) and more than half (52 percent) would choose virtual for routine appointments.

However, barriers to adoption could still impede progress, researchers stated. They noted, “Even as consumers gain confidence in digital tools and services post-pandemic, there is still work to be done to meet expectations for superior digital services. Amid the pandemic, consumers with nowhere else to turn were forced to lower their expectations for the quality of digital health experiences. But as things normalize, we believe that consumers will revert to prior expectations.”

Indeed, before COVID-19, high-quality digital services mattered to consumers, the research showed. Half of healthcare consumers surveyed agreed that a bad digital experience with a healthcare provider ruins the entire experience with that provider—and 39 percent believe a good digital interaction has a major influence on the consumer experience. At the same time, less than half of consumers in the survey said they would recommend chatbots, computers and digital devices for their ease and accuracy of communication.

Other challenges exist around privacy and security. For example, technology companies such as Google and Apple could play key roles in tracking the virus—but trust in Big Tech remains contested ground amid concerns over intrusive surveillance and lack of adequate regulation, according to the report. At the same time, federal authorities have warned about fraud and identity theft tied to the increased use of virtual services, even as they made it much easier for millions of Americans to use those services—in some cases allowing the use of consumer technologies that do not meet HIPAA standards, researchers noted.

Indeed,  many consumers have lost trust that their data is secure. In 2019, 89 percent of healthcare consumers trusted their doctor or other provider “very much” or “some” to keep their digital healthcare information, such as electronic medical records, secure. That percentage dropped to 83 percent in 2020.

Trust in tech companies has also declined. More than half of consumers (55 percent) said they do not trust these companies to keep digital health information secure. When asked “how much do you trust each of the following organizations or people to keep your digital healthcare information secure,” doctors ranked as second-most trusted (83 percent)—following hospitals (84 percent)—whereas tech companies ranked second to last (45 percent).

What’s more, the survey data revealed that getting doctors to sustainably buy in to digital health could have a significant impact on adoption. Before necessity drove a surge in virtual services, nearly a quarter of healthcare consumers surveyed (23 percent) said reliable and secure digital tools that help them to understand their health habits would motivate them to take a more active role in managing their health. Yet only 11 percent said their healthcare providers recommend digital tools for patient health management.

Physicians and other clinical practitioners can help maintain the crisis-era momentum as consumers look to them for motivation, researchers stated. “Trusted healthcare professionals” ranked highest among factors that would motivate consumers to take a more active role in managing their health, cited by 55 percent of respondents. Consumers also ranked convenient access to these professionals (virtually or in person) as a motivating factor (34 percent).