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The healthcare industry may look radically different in 2021. After a yearlong battle with the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare organizations and healthcare professionals will begin the transition into the next normal. What lessons will carry over, and what legacy systems will be retired?
For decades, trends in the healthcare industry have been largely driven by innovations in technology. Artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain have all been touted as the defining elements of a brighter healthcare future. In 2021, those promising technologies will be given a specific scope and purpose: rebuilding a more capable and more equitable healthcare system.
In some ways, the pandemic has inspired the healthcare industry to reach its latent potential: through the sudden rollout of virtual visits and telehealth, the definition of healthcare is changing from a purely in-person service to a blended, virtualized experience. But in other ways, the pandemic exacerbated inequalities and failures deeply rooted within the policies and processes of American healthcare. The post-pandemic world in healthcare will be defined by striking a new balance.
Healthcare has never been a static field, but the coming year promises to be one of its most dynamic. To get a look at the top trends in the healthcare industry in 2021, read on.
Covid-19 has amplified existing health inequities in the United States. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities have a Covid-19 mortality rate that’s between 2.5 and 3.8 times that of white Americans. Across all racial demographics, health outcomes are also worse for Americans living with food insecurity, housing insecurity, and/or unemployment. These social determinants of health can have a high human cost, and they also place a severe burden on the American healthcare system.
Health equity has been a longstanding problem for the American healthcare system, but Covid-19 has brought it into sharp focus. With its lack of universal healthcare, the US has the highest level of health inequity amongst all rich nations across practically every measurable health outcome.
Going into 2021, healthcare organizations will need to learn how to leverage technological innovations, political advocacy, and social initiatives to increase healthcare access across every demographic.
Telehealth has been a growing trend for years, but in 2020, it finally went mainstream. The Covid-19 pandemic saw health systems report between 50 and 175 times the usual number of telehealth visits, according to McKinsey.
By May 2020, 76 percent of consumers said they were either highly likely or moderately likely to use telehealth going forward, a marked increase over the 11 percent of consumers who reported using telehealth services in 2019.
Virtual visits aren’t here to replace most in-person visits. But engaging patients virtually pre- and post-visit—through questionnaires, information packets, and data-sharing—can make the in-person visits that are necessary significantly more impactful. As health systems apply what they learned about telehealth during the pandemic, patients should benefit from a wider, more accurate engagement with their care providers.
Across the nation, telehealth integration won’t happen all at once: 10 million people live in counties with low physical access to healthcare and no access to broadband internet. Still, the potential market size for virtual care could reach $250 billion, according to McKinsey.
Integrated Models of Care
Covid-19 has accelerated the growing trend of healthcare moving out of the hospital setting and into a distributed network of care that is integrated around the patient. Large payers are increasingly moving into non-hospital care delivery settings, and those that pursue a deep integration of care delivery through next-generation managed care models demonstrate better financial performance, according to McKinsey.
In parallel, the transition away from fee-for-service models is being led by Medicare Advantage, which is outperforming other models in the areas of overall experience, customer satisfaction, and general access. While Medicare Advantage has continually increased supplemental benefits and reduced costs for its members, employer-sponsored health programs have shifted more than 10 percent of costs back onto their employees.
The economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic may not allow employer-sponsored plans to continue to cost-shift in this manner, and both employers and payers are looking to Medicare Advantage’s example when rethinking how their own health coverages are structured.
Essential Mental Health Services
In July of 2020, more than half of American adults reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry or stress over the Covid-19 pandemic. Of those, many also reported difficulty sleeping, trouble eating, increased substance use, and/or aggravated chronic conditions. Lack of easy access to mental health services has meant that those conditions have likely worsened over time.
The impacts of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health will outlast the pandemic itself. While cost and access remain barriers to mental healthcare, telehealth may provide some relief. Analysts at Forrester, a leading market research firm, project that approximately a third of upcoming virtual care visits will be related to mental health, totaling an estimated 138 million in 2021. Healthcare organizations will need to build out comprehensive virtual mental health services in order to meet the need.
Patient-generated data is the next step in healthcare’s big data revolution. Wearable tech in healthcare is creating an outpouring of data around public health, and health systems are still learning how to optimize outcomes based on that data. But an increased amount of data leads to a hallmark concern in the healthcare industry: patient privacy. Healthcare organizations in 2021 and beyond will need to balance the use case of patient-generated data with the ability to comply with HIPAA and other regulations.
While some HIPAA enforcement by the Department of Health and Human Services has been compassionately discretionary during the Covid-19 pandemic, the increasing virtualization of healthcare visits and the utilization of more and more patient-generated data mean that healthcare organizations will need to prioritize patient privacy and the technical infrastructure that can ensure it.
The Covid-19 pandemic stress-tested the healthcare industry in practically every way. To meet the challenges, some rules had to be bent: from Operation Warp Speed’s strategic relaxation of certain regulatory requirements around pharmaceutical development that led to the safe and fast approval of new vaccines; to the temporary allowance of full practice authority for competent nurse practitioners and other non-physicians who then stepped up to treat patients. Some of those changes, once studied fully, may become permanent.
New policy reforms may be on their way, too. Economic pressure could lead to calls for a greater reduction in healthcare costs. And times of economic recession have, historically, led to significant healthcare reforms. With an incoming Democratic administration that may end up winning control of both the House and the Senate, healthcare could potentially see its largest reforms since the Affordable Care Act.
The trend of all trends, AI, continues into 2021. Most patients have already interacted with some form of AI in the course of receiving care, whether through chatbot or algorithm. But the future, as always with AI, is full of loftier promises: drug discovery, medical imaging, and precision medicine could all be revolutionized. And, according to Deloitte’s 2020 State of AI in the Enterprise Study, AI is already delivering concrete benefits to healthcare organizations in terms of process efficiency, lowering costs, and enhancing existing products and services.
The pandemic may have stolen the media spotlight, but 2020 was still a banner year for the intersection of healthcare and AI. BlueDot, a Canadian AI company, was the first to publish findings that predicted Covid-19 would spread into a global pandemic. Later in the year, an AI algorithm developed by the University of Oklahoma was able to diagnose Covid-19 simply by analyzing the sounds of people’s coughs.
Expect AI to keep popping up in the healthcare conversation all through 2021.
Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.