Digital health services and telemedicine aren’t new. In fact, technology has long offered health organizations and doctors the opportunity to rethink healthcare. Nonetheless, many barriers have remained, limiting innovation and the transformative potential of new technologies.
Then came COVID-19 with nationwide lockdowns and social distancing. Overnight, healthcare providers were forced to adapt, with many pivoting to telemedicine and looking to digital healthcare for new solutions. With old constraints out of the way, healthcare offerings were transformed, providing new services and applying new technologies to patient care.
As we start off a new year and look ahead at the post-pandemic healthcare industry, we’re considering the future of telemedicine and the other digital health trends likely to shape health services in 2021.
The Expansion of Telemedicine
Prior to the pandemic, telemedicine had been limited by laws and regulations, including HIPAA privacy requirements and Medicare/Medicaid eligibility. However, thanks to an easing of restrictions by the U.S. Health and Human Services office early in the coronavirus outbreak, telehealth offerings were allowed to expand quickly. Overall, telemedicine has been critical to providing care during COVID-19, allowing patients access to informed medical opinions without having to go into an office and risk their health or others.
While primary care providers have been the most common users of telemedicine up to now, many health professionals expect telehealth applications in specialist care to grow. Two areas in particular are the care management of chronic disease and mental health. With telehealth services, patients with chronic issues can be remotely monitored, while those struggling with anxiety or depression can quickly connect with licensed counselors and psychiatrists.
Post-pandemic, restrictions that were previously relaxed are likely to return and could present a challenge. Yet, ultimately, if implemented with the right technology and regulations in place, telemedicine could expand healthcare to a much larger portion of the population, including those often unable to access health services.
Electronic Health Records and Big Data
The growth of digital healthcare didn’t begin with COVID-19, but the pandemic has impacted the development of digital health systems and the collection of health data. Forced to stay home and social distance, people began to realize the importance of being in charge of their own health and having greater access to their health records. As a result, health industry experts expect a new focus on comprehensive and accessible electronic health records in the coming years.
Currently, although many digital patient portals exist, the information they contain is usually siloed. For example, a patient could have separate portals for their primary care provider, eye doctor, dentist, medical specialists, and insurance company, none of which share data or interact with each other. In order for patients to manage their care and for providers to have access to important health records, digital systems need to become interoperable.
One great example of this trend is Sweden. Swedish citizens are issued a personal identification number known as the Swedish PIN for all their healthcare documentation. Using their PIN, a Swedish citizen can access their health records, including prescription medications and communications, all in one place. Researchers and scientists also have access to these records (without identifying information) allowing them to use the data for important studies.
While a national system of electronic health records may be a ways off, unifying records across disparate health systems through technologies like blockchain can offer important benefits such as improved preventative care and less medication errors. As the digitalization of healthcare continues, record management, system interoperability, and big data will be a major focus in the future.
The Consumerization of Healthcare
Some healthcare trends are long term efforts and won’t be realized in 2021. But the consumerization of healthcare is already happening. From wearable electronic devices monitoring vital signs to the home delivery of prescription medications, healthcare is quickly becoming a consumer-oriented business.
Like many other health trends, the pandemic is at least partially responsible for the growth in consumer healthcare technologies. Apps, wearable devices, and self-monitoring solutions which put people in charge of their own health have all grown in popularity. Current technologies allow people to do everything from track exercise and heart rate to monitoring blood sugar and oxygen levels at home, and capabilities are likely to expand.
Experts also link the growth in consumer health devices to the continuation of telemedicine. With more patients relying on telehealth, doctors will need other ways to collect vital information. This is where internet-connected devices and smart technology can help with remote patient monitoring, offering the real-time data that makes telemedicine possible and effective.
Artificial Intelligence and Digital Health
Most patients have already encountered AI in some form in a healthcare setting. AI powers health service chatbots to customer service and even therapy. But it’s the potential impact of AI on the digital transformation of healthcare that excites most experts. AI has applications in precision medicine, genomics, drug discovery, and medical imaging. As a result, the AI healthcare market is expected to grow rapidly in the next several years, exceeding $34 billion by 2025.
Other future uses of AI include healthcare diagnoses and treatment. For example, AI pattern recognition could be applied to cancer treatment, allowing doctors to develop treatment plans tailored to a patient’s genetics and lifestyle. The technology was even applied to COVID-19 by researchers who developed an AI program that could recognize and diagnose the coronavirus by the sound of a patient’s cough.
With increasing use of AI tools and broad acceptance of machine learning in healthcare, AI is expected to be an important area of growth in 2021 and beyond.