When the pandemic hit in full force last March, healthcare organizations had to pivot overnight. What was once impossible became necessary, and what was once unlikely became an everyday occurrence. While this disruption came with growing pains — health organizations faced supply, staff and support shortages for months on end — the World Economic Forum notes that “the industry’s response has vividly demonstrated its resilience and ability to bring innovations to market quickly.”
In other words, the proverbial cat is out of the bag — and there’s no putting healthcare innovation back once pandemic pressures ease. Here’s a look at four key technology trends healthcare enterprises can expect in 2021 as COVID-19 comes under control.
1. Predictive Analytics in Healthcare
Although the first few months of the pandemic came with unparalleled uncertainty, ongoing work into the causes, mechanisms and mortality of the disease have yielded valuable healthcare data. By the beginning of December, researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health had developed a COVID-19 mortality risk calculator to estimate the potential of severe outcomes for individuals and inform vaccine rollouts.
According Susan Snedaker, information security officer at Tucson Medical Center and interim CIO for TMC HealthCare, this is just the beginning for predictive analytics.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” she says. “Teams have improved their disease tracking and risk management. As information evolved, a lot of people were digging into the data to see if they could predict outcomes for patients or treatment plans that were being created on the fly. They saw the value of quick-moving data.”
She anticipates that after the pandemic passes, the value around predictive analytics in healthcare will remain, but adoption “will be slower and more thoughtful.”
2. IoMT: Connected Medical Devices Support Proactive Health Care
The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) also gained significant ground during the pandemic, allowing providers to deliver proactive care at a distance. Applications have ranged widely, from connected wearables that report critical patient data to the deployment of “smart beds” in hospital settings to improve patient comfort.
The uptake of connected devices and digital health technologies went better than expected, says Snedaker.
“There was a widespread notion that people would be resistant to digital communication, but what healthcare pros realized was that families and patients liked brief, more frequent updates,” she says.
For TMC, this was reflected in the adoption of a connected device initiative that allowed operating room staff to quickly send patient status updates via group chat to a set of selected family members. These texts were prewritten, brief and one-way; information, not conversation, was the goal.
According to Snedaker, it worked. “We found these brief, frequent updates brought comfort to families, and we found the patient experience was better overall.”
3. Future Telehealth Advances Will Deliver the Best of Both Worlds
Together, many of the shifts that have taken place have moved the needle toward a more patient-focused experience of healthcare delivery.
“The pandemic pointed to the need for patient-centered healthcare,” says Stephanie Willding, CEO of CommunityHealth, the nation’s largest volunteer-based free medical facility. “Before the pandemic, there were many ways the industry wasn’t operating in a patient-centered way.”
One challenge that CommunityHealth had to overcome was pivoting operational approaches on the fly to account for the recall of volunteer providers to their primary care facilities. However, says Willding, the adoption of virtual visits has proved advantageous.
“Our no-show rate has gone from 18 percent to 5 percent,” she says. “This approach is now core to our model of care, with 40 percent of visits by video or phone.”
Although many providers expect the expansion of telehealth to persist even after patients and providers can safely meet in person, they also expect this technology-driven approach to undergo its own evolution. For Willding and CommunityHealth, this means combining low-tech solutions such as standard blood pressure cuffs with video tutorials, allowing patients to self-report key data.
Such solutions will be essential for healthcare organizations serving distributed, disparate populations who may lack access to unlimited smartphone data or high-speed broadband internet.
4. New Cybersecurity Concerns Increase Cloud Adoption in Healthcare
Changes in care delivery models also have implications for associated IT infrastructure, with cybersecurity concerns pushing some organizations to the cloud.
At TMC, a major transition to the cloud is underway, says Snedaker.
“We’re seeing articles about security gaps, and it’s because healthcare has primarily kept data on-premises,” she says. “As we deploy telehealth, infrastructure security becomes more important and more elusive. There’s no edge anymore — infrastructure is very porous.”
To solve for evolving cybersecurity issues in healthcare, Snedaker recommends that organizations shift both their technology and mindset.
“Not all organizations can keep up with the security learning curve,” she notes. “Moving to the cloud is no different than buying brand new technology for your on-premises data center and not knowing how to use it.”
In other words, simply deploying the scope and scale of cloud resources necessary to support tech-driven healthcare initiatives isn’t enough by itself. IT staff must be prepared to address common challenges, such as distributed denial of service attacks and ransomware, along with more targeted threat vectors such as COVID-19 vaccination scams.
For healthcare organizations, the new normal that’s on the horizon will come with an increased focus on technology-driven solutions to help better predict patient outcomes, increase consumer connectivity, embrace evolving telehealth expectations and defend the next generation of medical IT infrastructure.
Willding puts it simply: “It’s time to rethink space and place to deliver improved, patient-centered care.”