Antimo PerrettaCEO of AXA for Europe and Latin America
October 15, 2021
As the effects of COVID-19 continue to play out across society, we are forming a clearer view into how differently men and women experienced the pandemic.
Although men have constituted a slight majority of COVID-related deaths, women have arguably suffered more, as more women and girls were pushed into poverty and violence against women climbed sharply in a world under lockdown. Women also suffered more mentally: one AXA study found that 42% of women reported a deterioration of their mental health during COVID, compared with 33% of men, a discrepancy that analysts chalked up to the greater load of family labor that tends to fall on women, combined with more financial insecurity.
But at least one positive thing for women may be coming out of the pandemic: the rapid digitalization of medicine. Use of telehealth services in the US rose 38 times over what it had been before COVID-19. Uptake of remote consultations has also surged in Europe. In the UK, while 90% of consultations were done in-person pre-COVID, 90% were done by phone or online in July 2020. In France, meanwhile, GPs were delivering six times more online consultations at the start of 2021 than they were at the start of 2020. Among the users of teleconsultation services in AXA, 70% are women.
Online health services have proven popular enough that they are likely to continue even after the global health crisis is over. The National Health Service in the UK, for instance, has announced that it intends to offer online consultations on a permanent basis. Forty percent of US consumers plan to continue to use telemedicine services going forward, and 57% of physicians say they plan to keep offering virtual services.
Overall, it’s safe to say that online services will help women in many ways. Virtual consultations put certain kinds of house calls within reach of many consumers, reducing the need to arrange childcare and elder care before making a doctor’s appointment. It may be especially useful for improving mental health, both because of time savings and uneven access to mental health specialists. Finally, moving health services online can make life easier for female health service professionals as well, as work-from-home possibilities grow.
But the advantages of digitalization go far beyond online consultations. Digitalization also facilitates record-keeping and smarter triaging, makes it easier to apply predictive analytics to forecast individual risks, and makes remote robotic surgery a practical reality.
So far, the results have been encouraging enough that some institutions are already promoting new digital offerings, such as a Finnish health care provider that has built an online patient portal that includes online booking services and prescription renewals, and a Milan-headquartered hospital group that is building an AI research center to improve its diagnostic process and enhance its decision-making.
The digitalization of health care is still a work in progress, and a lot remains to be done. Some of the work is technical in nature, but much of it is not. In some jurisdictions, regulations need to be changed to accommodate virtual consultations while preserving patient privacy, and pricing models have yet to be worked out. In many countries, the fragmentation, complexity and costs of health systems are a barrier to access to care. This is one of the main objectives of our recent partnership with Microsoft: the new ecosystem of health services that we are developing together is a powerful lever to provide customers with access to the best healthcare solutions.
Furthermore, care must also be taken to make sure that biases and gender discrimination are not embedded in the AI systems that are already running more and more of our world.
Most of all, all the stakeholders in the health care community – health care providers, the pharmaceutical industry, policymakers, and consumers – must demand more from the system and more from each other to make sure the outcome of digitalization is better for everyone.
Reckoning with the impacts of the pandemic – and the inequity it underscored within society – is still ahead of us. But if we handle the next stage of health care digitalization right, we will be able to point to one positive result: a health system more attuned to women’s needs.
Antimo Perretta is CEO of AXA for Europe and Latin America.