The world of healthcare and life sciences is undergoing a radical transformation driven by a combination of innovative digital technologies, cloud platforms and the demands of a constantly evolving global marketplace. Healthcare services have typically lagged behind other industries in undertaking the sweeping changes needed to create a fully integrated digital ecosystem. But the sudden and unceasing demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have spurred a wave of digital innovation that promises to reshape the future of healthcare for good, with a multitude of benefits for both patients and providers.


Digital Transformation and the Demands of the Pandemic

Digital transformation refers to a company-wide shift in business models, customer interactions, and company culture driven by changing customer behavior and expectations and emerging technologies.

This digital age is made possible by rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud-based data management. These tools and technologies have already made significant inroads into the world of healthcare, but the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early months of 2020 forced organizations — including pharmacies, clinics, hospitals and residential care facilities — to find new ways to provide key services both safely and efficiently.

In the early days of the pandemic, new digital tools helped people connect, ask questions, and meet healthcare needs even during lockdowns and mandates for social distancing. Organizations implemented telehealth platforms or expanded existing ones. Others shifted to remote working and set up chatbot-powered resource sites to handle an avalanche of health questions from a worried public. Fitness trackers, sleep monitors, and other wearable tech allowed patients to monitor their health and share data with their doctors without setting foot in a waiting room.

In a time of great uncertainty and crisis, these and other digital tools helped providers of all kinds deliver essential care. And now, as the world prepares to move toward the new normal of post-pandemic life, healthcare organizations are recognizing that digital solutions implemented in a time of emergency are forming the foundation for a new, digitally driven healthcare ecosystem that combines the best of both humans and machines.

Here’s a look at how three healthcare technology innovators are making initiatives inspired by the pandemic a permanent part of their service model.


Walgreens: Patient Care Across the Spectrum

During the pandemic, pharmacy giant Walgreens redesigned its entire deployment system to continue providing essential services and products. To meet the urgent demands of the pandemic, Walgreens opted for agile methodologies that brought representatives from all departments onto the scrum teams of software developers tasked with creating the necessary tools and platforms. That partnership led to the quick rollout of a variety of contactless service features such as online ordering and curbside pickup, as well as pharmacy consults and other services via the store app and online portals.

In this way, Walgreens was able to develop a contactless solution for meeting customer needs, from filling prescriptions and selling products to providing reliable and authoritative information on a wide range of health topics. Like many other businesses in the digital age, Walgreens Boots Alliance is working with major tech companies, including Adobe and Microsoft, to leverage customer data for a highly personalized experience with the company.

Although Walgreens’ mobile app and FindCare digital telehealth platform existed before the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis revealed new uses for these technologies and exposed gaps that needed fixing before releasing the app again. Now, along with offering COVID-19 resources such as symptom screening and general information, the FindCare portal and related features offer solutions for a variety of health conditions and help users connect with healthcare services. Walgreens also plans to partner both physically and digitally with VillageMD to provide full clinic services at many pharmacy locations — a venture that creates a seamless healthcare experience through a combination of telemedicine, chat, and information sharing between doctors and pharmacists.


Northwell Health: AI-Powered Chatbots for Faster Service

As the pandemic unfolded, healthcare providers were inundated with questions from patients concerned about the coronavirus and other issues. To meet that demand, New York State’s Northwell Health brought on 100 additional agents, but the volume of calls continued to overwhelm the organization’s customer care system.

In response, Northwell designed and deployed a sophisticated system of AI-powered chatbots capable of acting as virtual assistants. Working alongside human agents, these chatbots can carry out a long list of functions such as directing patients to relevant healthcare information, reporting lab results, and setting up appointments. In 2020, these smart chatbots handled 20 percent of Northwell’s total call traffic.

Northwell has also implemented a dedicated Digital Patient Experience team that aims to provide patients with the same seamless digital experience they expect in other areas of their lives. The Northwell app allows patients to handle many interactions on their own, including managing appointments, paying bills, connecting to Northwell’s FollowMyHealth telemedicine program, and more. These digital initiatives give patients greater control over their care and streamline many routine tasks such as scheduling and billing.


Providence Health & Services: Lessons Learned From the Pandemic

Washington-based Providence Health & Services has the unique distinction of running the first U.S. healthcare facility where a COVID-19 patient was hospitalized. Because Washington was one of the early pandemic hotspots, Providence faced immediate pressure to respond to the crisis with digital tools that allowed patients to get care and COVID-19 information remotely.

In those early days of the pandemic, Providence developed and deployed an AI-powered chatbot as a coronavirus assessment tool, helping people get answers about their condition and decide whether to seek medical care. Providence also improved and expanded its existing telemedicine portal for easier access, raising the number of weekly virtual visits from 70 to 70,000 by the end of 2020. This telehealth interface now reliably and securely connects professionals across all Providence facilities, allowing the organization to expand the network by more than 10,000 new providers.

Now, Providence’s Digital Innovation Group looks to the future, using lessons learned during the pandemic to create new digital solutions for a variety of healthcare challenges. The group also works with other organizations to build digital tools and platforms for their own specific needs.

The digital revolution is transforming the world of healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of that revolution, forever changing the way healthcare organizations operate and opening doors for continued innovation. Find community and inspiration for your digital journey with workshops, webinars, and conferences from DigXchange.