by Lindsey Berke
2020 was an extremely difficult year for a number of industries across the globe and particularly for the healthcare industry. However, despite the challenges, healthcare professionals have also been able to see positive developments within the industry and are hopeful when looking at the future of healthcare innovation. In this blog post, we’ll explore the positive outlooks and their challenges when looking into the future of healthcare innovation with insight from a few healthcare experts who recently spoke at a webinar that Dimensional Insight had the pleasure of hosting with the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.
The future of healthcare
Although we have gotten used to living in a pandemic world, we will not have to live like this forever and there are a number of changes that are expected to happen within the healthcare industry when the pandemic finally ends. One of these changes is the increased amount of telehealth usage. Telehealth was available for use before COVID-19, but it became the new norm during the pandemic and it’s here to stay for a long time. Telehealth not only saves unnecessary trips to the hospital or doctor’s office where sitting in the waiting room would expose individuals to germs, but it’s also more convenient and comfortable to stay at home and speak with a doctor, specifically for those who are older or aren’t able to easily travel to and from locations. According to Forbes, the amount of U.S. patients using telehealth grew from 11% in 2019 to 46% in April 2020.
One of the panelists in our healthcare innovation webinar, John Brownstein, Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, expressed the need for telehealth to continue and the positive effects it may have. “We have built a real foundation for telehealth that will exist and I think it will persist,” he said. “I think it will push us forward into other areas such as patient monitoring. Because of the pandemic, we got funding and deployment for such technologies that will I think lead to some permanent changes.” Before the pandemic, telehealth visits were not always covered by health insurance companies as patients were not visiting their doctor in person, but as telehealth became an essential part of healthcare services, some insurance companies are revising their plans as a result of COVID-19 so that their users are able to get the care they need during such an uncertain time.
The race to advance artificial intelligence capabilities also became one of the biggest changes in the healthcare industry because of COVID-19. Biomarkers are one example of how advanced AI has become. According to MedCityNews, 75% of oncology patients do not respond to at least one of the available treatment drugs, and developing new biomarkers to better predict prognosis and gather the needed data for providers to accurately treat the patients is not only expensive, but also a very slow process, which is hard for both parties. With AI, algorithms can help cut these costs down and make the entire process faster. “These algorithms will combine pathology, radiology, genomic, clinical and demographic data, and analyze huge databases of medical records, treatments and outcomes,” according to MedCityNews. “AI-driven solutions could also provide a more accurate and objective analysis of medical data, leading to new computational tests that replace or augment today’s molecular tests.”
AI is also being used for EMRs in an area that has been showing great promise for the future of healthcare. YiDing Yu, Chief Medical Officer at Olive, describes one example of how her healthcare technology company utilizes the capabilities of modern AI to make life easier for healthcare providers and their patients: “A lot of automation has been deployed using rules or using bots, and what we’ve created has been an end-to-end automation platform that actually pulls in 40,000 medical necessity criteria from all the nation’s pairs including regional and state pairs and then actually using AI, natural language processing, to look through the clinical chart and identify the clinical documents to satisfy that. What we’re actually doing is the next level which is to provide automated point of care approval. This is complex, you know, orthopedic surgery prior authorization where the provider side, at the press of their button, submits full clinicals checked against AI review and the pair sends back if all the medical necessity criteria are met, sends back an automated approval back into their EMR and that patient walks out the door knowing their MRI will be approved.”
Healthcare innovation challenges
With the future of healthcare looking brighter with these new developments, there are still some challenges that need to be kept in mind. One challenge can be seen in telehealth. While there are many benefits of telehealth, especially in the wake of a pandemic, these benefits can really only be experienced by those who have access to such tools.
It’s easy to assume that in this world of modern technology that anyone and everyone can easily grab a computer and schedule a virtual appointment with their doctor, however, this is not the case. There are many individuals who do not have access to internet or Wi-Fi, or don’t have access to transportation that may take them somewhere with internet. There are also many individuals who don’t own a computer or smartphone, while some individuals may not be technically skilled enough to understand how to schedule appointments or set up their virtual meetings – specifically elderly patients. Some patients may even have vision or hearing issues that may make accommodations more difficult than if they were being seen in person. These barriers are difficult, but must be taken into consideration across all healthcare organizations.
Alistair Erskine, Chief Digital Health Officer at Mass General Brigham, stated that he didn’t think the issue was “one-size-fits-all.” “It’s back to digital divide concept of really making sure that whenever you introduce a new technology that you take into account all patients and capabilities and not just the ones who have the right technologies in order to make the digital divide smaller and not larger,” Erskine said. “And that means that sometimes you’re not able to provide everybody with all the bells and whistles that would otherwise exist. Texting platforms for example, you can only do so much, but it’s important to include it as part of the deployment just to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind while we’re doing it.”
When looking at all of the positive innovations that COVID-19 was able to push forward as a whole, Brownstein also expressed that one of his concerns was that these amazing healthcare innovations are advancing simply due to the fact that we’re facing a pandemic, which is another challenge and contemplation that healthcare organizations are taking into account. “Do these things change permanently?” Brownstein asked. “We’ll see if these emergency issues subside because that’s what’s been allowing us to take care of the most complex patients. Is this a moment now to really push forward and how do we bring these innovations permanently? Definitely some optimism, but we’re worried about without the trauma of the pandemic, will it fade away.”
Lessons learned from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic
As cliché as it may sound, whether we view the pros or the cons of healthcare’s future, one of the biggest lessons learned from 2020 may be that we have the ability to come together and really accomplish things when we need to. This pandemic was unpredictable, and it forced many industries, specifically the healthcare industry, to change everything that they once knew and advance their industry at a pace they never thought was possible to do in less than a year. COVID-19 also allowed us to clearly see the issues behind healthcare systems across the globe, healthcare security, and resource availability. As two health experts told Forbes in early 2021, though, “If we use the preventable catastrophe of COVID-19 to remake our national and global health systems, we will discover the full potential of human ingenuity to thrive even against Mother Nature’s greatest threats.”