Every New Year, my team and I pull together our list of "predictions" for health care for the year ahead. There has been a lot of uncertainty lately, but one thing we know for sure is that COVID-19 and the extraordinary events of last year will have a lasting effect on the health of the nation - physically, mentally and economically.
The crisis has brought out the best in us, and health systems will continue transforming health care for the better in 2021. But we’ll also face intense pressure as we do the hard work of getting the pandemic behind us and helping our communities heal.
What can you expect in the year ahead? Here are Providence’s top 10 predictions.
1. COVID-19 becomes more manageable with vigilance, vaccinations and therapeutics.
Despite massive surges early in the year, the curve begins flattening in the spring. The vaccination roll-out picks up steam with 100 million Americans vaccinated in the first 100 day. A new normal begins to emerge by end of summer thanks to a more coordinated national strategy, communities doing their part and the continued dedication of health care personnel on the front lines.
2. The power of big data is harnessed to prepare for the next pandemic.
The ability to share data quickly has been key to the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Health systems will come together in 2021 to build deidentified data platforms that makes it possible to study new viruses even more quickly, improving readiness for when the next pandemic hits.
3. Cybersecurity becomes a burning priority for health systems.
With cyberattacks on the rise, health systems significantly ramp up privacy and security measures. Safeguarding personal health information and other sensitive data from cyber criminals remains a top concern for providers, who are entrusted to ensure the privacy of patient information.
4. Addressing racial disparities in health care takes on greater urgency.
The disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on communities of color, combined with the realities of racism in the U.S., have shined a light on the need to address disparities in health care. This becomes an urgent focus for health systems like Providence, which has pledged $50 million to improve health equity in the next five years.
5. The effect of climate change on health becomes more widely acknowledged.
Last year’s deadly wildfire season is one example of how climate change affects health, worsening the quality of air people breathe and leading to deadly consequences. Expect more sectors, including health care, to acknowledge the urgency of climate change and take action. Providence, for example, has committed to achieving carbon negativity by 2030.
6. The nation’s mental health crisis continues to mount.
The physical, emotional and economic toll of the pandemic becomes more evident in the population throughout 2021. The nation’s health care personnel are among those suffering depression, stress and anxiety from being on the front lines and witnessing widespread death and suffering. A concerted effort is required to support one another struggling with mental health issues in the year ahead.
7. A new drive emerges to ensure every American has access to primary care.
Having the led the charge on COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and home monitoring, primary care has played a critical role in our nation’s response to the pandemic. Expect to see innovative payment models proposed in 2021 that seek to improve health outcomes and reduce costs by making primary care available to every American.
8. Telehealth momentum continues to build even as the pandemic subsides.
Rapid adoption of virtual care is one of the success stories of COVID-19. Providence, for example, logged 1.6 million telehealth visits last year. Virtual care demonstrates its staying power in 2021, proving an essential strategy for serving more patients conveniently and affordably.
9. Innovative digital tools create a more seamless, engaged health care experience.
In 2020 artificial intelligence chat bots, telehealth, remote patient monitoring, and text messaging services were quickly deployed and scaled to respond to the pandemic. And providers and patients adopted the technology to an unprecedented degree. In 2021, these digital technologies will only grow in importance and will begin delivering competitive value to providers as they meet head-to-head with new entrants, including national payor-providers, retailers and tech giants entering. Competitive pressures from these disruptors will make a seamless, engaging digital experience a requirement for health system success. Systems that are unprepared will begin to see the competitive impact in 2021. To meet these challenges, health systems will make large digital investments in brand, transactions, navigation and engagement platforms.
10. With a weakened economy, more people are uninsured or covered by government health insurance programs.
Increased unemployment means health systems must prepare to care for a rising number of patients who are uninsured or covered by Medicare or Medicaid. Strains on state budgets make this a more dire issue. Caring for populations with no or lower reimbursement threaten the financial sustainability of hospitals and clinics, especially rural providers. Also, a likely depletion of the Medicare trust fund by 2024 may spur a push for payment reform and value-based payment models this year. Models that were voluntarily could become mandatory and rolled out on a larger scale.