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Digital Health Past, Present, Future: The State of Digital Strategy Among Health Systems

Digital Health Past, Present, Future: The State of Digital Strategy Among Health Systems Banner Image

The hype around digital health is stronger than ever as 2020 continues to pose new challenges that are transforming healthcare in real-time. With the future of healthcare and digital health on the forefront of everyone's minds, EUA hosted a virtual event featuring Andrew Rebhan, consultant with the Advisory Board, to help answer some looming questions.

The hype around digital health is stronger than ever as 2020 continues to pose new challenges that are transforming healthcare in real-time. With the future of healthcare and digital health on the forefront of everyone's minds, EUA hosted a virtual event featuring Andrew Rebhan, consultant with the Advisory Board, to help answer some looming questions. The event was titled, "2020 Digital Health Trends," and focused on the past, present and future of digital health and its impact on the state of digital strategy among health systems today. Join me as I recap what I learned.

Before the Storm – Pre-COVID-19

Before COVID-19, there were already many emerging technologies being introduced into the healthcare space as a result of hyper connectivity, the desire to improve the patient experience and consumerism. As consumerism continues to influence healthcare, Rebhan gave examples of changes and disruption with respect to service models and an increase in access points; these included virtual visits, urgent care and retail shops like Walmart, offering flat fee walk-in care without insurance. Before the pandemic, technology investments were highest around patient portal functions, such as accessing phone records, online bill pay and scheduling; the lowest sector was telehealth.

How Technology Has Influenced Our COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 has pushed technological innovation to the forefront of many healthcare leaders’ minds. Since the pandemic began, a number of new tools have been created to monitor the spread of the disease and improve treatments. Telehealth, AI, data analytics, population health tracking and niche technologies, such as VR and 3D printing, all entered the picture at a rapid rate. However, it was telehealth that really outpaced the others due to an alleviation of payment restrictions and its ability to give individuals a variety of choice options to communicate with their healthcare provider(s). Along with this, there has been a rise in physicians and consumers viewing telemedicine much more favorably. Rebhan stated that 11% of US consumers used telehealth in 2019 versus 46% in April of 2020. The most significant increase was seen amongst baby boomers and the silent generation. This breaks the standard thought that Millennials would be the most responsive to new health technology, but maybe that is because they were originally seen as a lower risk subset.

Infrastructure has rapidly been built to accommodate the increased use of telehealth and many are asking, “What is going to happen after things calm down?” The biggest and most influential question is on the payer side. There is currently no consensus on whether telehealth will be a permanent alternative to in-person care as insurance companies have stayed silent on whether patients will be required to pay some costs of virtual visits in the future. Since in-person care sites have now opened for elective surgeries, the Advisory Board has seen a slight decline in telehealth. Many physicians still see face-to-face interaction as the gold standard of care and view virtual care as a supplemental method or to be used solely for treatment of those that are geographically dispersed. However, Rebhan notes that it would be unwise to revert to old ways. While historically there was only so much a physician could do over the phone without a means of measuring vitals or other biometrics, other complimentary technologies are emerging.

Remote patient monitoring, AI, analytics and contact tracing are now playing a major role in the patient’s journey. When managing chronic conditions, wearables, connected devices and mobile apps can not only help by tracking patients in their daily lives, they also enable care teams to help patients at their home and in their communities. AI and analytics play a large role in determining who’s at greatest risk for severe complications from COVID-19 while tracking and managing the infection by leveraging big data and dashboards. In tandem with this, there has been a heightened focus on contact tracing efforts. This has spurred cross stakeholder collaborations such as Google and Apple, while generating discussion about data privacy and the ability to track diseases in a way that people don’t find to be too invasive. This may be a viable future model as the Advisory Board reported that consumers are more comfortable sharing their personal data with a doctor than with governments or big tech firms.

How Will This Shape Future Strategy?

Beyond this pandemic, there are many factors that impact healthcare's bottom line. Now that sites of care are opening back up there is a need to convince patients that it is safe to return. Increased unemployment will prevent many patients from accessing healthcare services and those who put off care will be at higher risk as their condition starts to deteriorate. On the other end of the scale, healthcare organizations are having to invest in technology. Digital health tech company funding is increasing at a record pace, with the first half of 2020 reaching $9.1 billion in global funding—the biggest half year pull on record. 

From a consumer angle, expectations are that some type of digital component or interactions will continue, which is influencing how CEOs and CIOs are working together to prioritize investments. The pandemic is having them rethink IT investment, staffing, and broader strategies at an organizational level.

Digital technology has already had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on the healthcare industry, and will impact facility design as well. In regard to facility design, I’d urge healthcare and facility leadership to take a moment to review our “Long Term Pandemic Considerations for Healthcare Facility Design” to gain insight on facility design to reduce infection spread. This is a fluid document that we continue to update as we learn more. In closing, I’m curious to know your thoughts. How do you think digital technology will cause us to rethink healthcare spaces in the future?

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