It’s pretty safe to say that the events of 2020 have changed the world. For healthcare and information technology, many of those changes will continue driving transformation in 2021 — and a few new ones will also make an impact.
Here are my predictions for healthcare IT in the coming months:
1. 2021 will be the year of FHIR
2021 will be the year of FHIR (pronounced “fire”) in healthcare. Under the 21st Century Cures Act, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) rolled out the Interoperability Regulation mandate. Starting January 2021, the new CMS interoperability rule requires significant changes for payers and providers to share standardized electronic health information with patients through its Patient Access API (enforcement starts July 2021).
HL7 FHIR is the chosen standard for joining disparate systems and exchanging healthcare information electronically. It holds the promise of empowering patients to make more informed decisions, but six months is not much time to build a FHIR-based Patient Access API. In order to comply, health plans need to act quickly and decide to develop an in-house FHIR-based Patient Access API, or find the right partner-hosted solution.
2. Telemedicine will continue its ascent
Let’s face it — the future will not look like the past, and investing in virtual healthcare isn’t a bad bet. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven unprecedented telemedicine adoption as doctors and providers replaced in-person patient visits with remote options whenever possible.
The exponential growth of telehealth will continue because it just makes good sense (even once the pandemic ends). People have grown accustomed to the convenience. It won’t replace critical physician visits, but will provide flexibility when a doctor’s office trip is unnecessary.
Telemedicine is ideal for quick consults, follow-ups, visual screenings, and virtual exams. Providers can see more patients in the same amount of time without possible exposure to viruses or other infectious diseases, and patients don’t have to leave the house to consult with their physicians. It’s a win-win in a lot of situations.
But while there have been emergency allowances for pandemic conditions, whenever patient information is involved, HIPAA compliance comes into play. And payment models and coding need longer-term modification to keep telehealth both attractive and viable. Luckily, most telemedicine providers can utilize managed services and cloud infrastructure to keep pace with evolving regulatory requirements and industry evolution.
3. Work from home will not end — ever
The pandemic will have a lasting impact on the way Americans work. No question, we’ll be living in a different world post-COVID-19, and remote work will remain part of our “new normal.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (via the WEF), only about 7% of U.S. workers enjoyed the option to work remotely before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
That all changed in March 2020 when work-from-home mandates rolled out across the U.S. to slow the spread of COVID-19. The sudden shift launched companies into the future workplace,3–4 years earlier than anticipated. A survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reports private sector companies pivoted to remote work 40 times faster than they expected possible.
Fast forward nine months, it’s easy to conclude that many Americans would prefer to continue to work from home (or enjoy hybrid in-person/remote schedules) even after restrictions are lifted. To enable safe remote working environments long term, companies need to strengthen secure, digital infrastructure that supports critical business operations, minimizes downtime, and ensures data safety. Cloud-based IT environments have emerged as the most affordable, reliable, and scalable means to enable business continuity with a “futurized” workforce.
4. Cloud adoption will increase dramatically in the Healthcare & Life Sciences (HCLS) world
No surprise, companies that had already committed to and invested in cloud technology before the pandemic hit fared better during the crisis than those that had not prioritized cloud adoption or were still on the fence. Healthcare and life sciences (HCLS) organizations are no exception. An industry burdened with legacy healthcare equipment, sensitive data, and strict regulations has been painstakingly slow to adopt cloud-driven strategies — understandably so.
COVID-19 changed that. Driven by the emergency need to rethink quality care delivery and critical information flow, the HCLS sector is now highly motivated for modernization at speed and at scale. Intelligent, connected, and secure cloud-based solutions are already bringing innovation to care delivery models, drug discovery, and genomics. These solutions will help HCLS organizations radically reshape the industry by finally unlocking the full potential of the cloud.
5. Rapid advancements in cloud-powered virtual health secured medical technology’s place in the future of healthcare
Medical technology (medtech) played a vital role in the efforts to combat COVID-19.
From ventilator production upgrades to rapid diagnostic test innovation, medtech rose to the challenges of COVID-19 on many fronts, including the development of a swath of virtual health applications that allow patients to interact with their providers and receive treatment — all without leaving home.
After experiencing the benefits of new technology and virtual care services, patients and providers will be reluctant to go back to what we once considered “normal.” Convenience, quality, and cost-effectiveness are now major priorities for both healthcare consumers and providers in the U.S.
To power the “next normal,” medtech organizations are modernizing antiquated data systems and migrating to public clouds such as AWS and Azure. In-house IT teams with limited resources and expertise had struggled to rapidly scale while also maintaining compliance with HIPAA and similar health data protection laws and standards. Managed cloud environments bridge this gap, making the cloud more accessible and continuously ensuring compliance, ultimately enabling greater innovation across the healthcare industry.
The companies best positioned to thrive in the new medtech landscape will be those that can securely integrate data from various devices into one platform and link to other systems (e.g., hospital patient records) or those that partner with vetted service providers to offload infrastructure operations, security, and compliance management — freeing up internal resources to focus on innovations that are core to their business.
6. Health information exchanges (HIEs) will continue to build on COVID-19 lessons learned
According to a recent data brief from the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), 15 of the biggest US cities have high rates of health IT interoperability, but there are still notable disparities nationwide.
Thankfully, regulatory flexibilities and resource allocations for COVID-19 response have advanced improvement in healthcare interoperability and data exchange.
The ONC points out that the passing of the 21st Century Cures Act and the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA) signal long-needed improvements to interoperability and patient data sharing between HIEs.
Traditionally, organizations participating in an HIE share data with other HIE members. Unfortunately, those who are not part of a particular HIE don’t have access to its data.
This has resulted in large blind spots for critical health information, drastically slowing a state- or county-level response to an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic because there is no single source of truth.
Elements of the Cures Act and TEFCA, combined with managed services and cloud infrastructure, will aid many states, counties, municipalities, healthcare information exchanges, and hospital groups in improving the flow and exchange of electronic health information and data sharing between HIEs. Moving forward, disparate healthcare data can be more easily transformed into actionable insights that drive more-informed policy decisions and better health outcomes. Pandemic response helped jumpstart necessary innovation in health data sharing and greater efficiency in utilization.
7. Payers will race to the cloud to support remote call centers
As 2020 comes to a close, there is consensus that some of the rapid changes in consumer behavior and customer service delivery will have a long-lasting impact. 2021 may be the year of redefining customer engagement.
In response to pandemic-driven restrictions on business operations, many organizations raced to virtualize their customer service functions. Cloud-based, omnichannel call, and contact center services became essential extensions for many businesses to remain connected with their clientele, with the added benefits of scalable automation, data collection, and analytics necessary to navigate this new normal.
The healthcare sector is certainly subject to this transformation. For example, to remain competitive, it’s imperative for healthcare payers to maintain responsive and personalized customer experience — something cloud services proved capable of providing. Payer organizations will increasingly look to the power of the cloud, AI, and big data to solve customer contact concerns and deliver modern customer service enhanced by technology in 2021 and beyond.
8. Edge computing stands to make huge inroads in healthcare application
Edge computing capabilities will be getting a big boost for one simple reason: 5G rollout.
As the world went mobile and IoT deployments for “smart” everything proliferated, it became evident that moving some types of connection, computation, and data storage closer in proximity to where it’s actually used can alleviate internet bottlenecks, speed response times, enhance function, and save bandwidth.
5G networks are designed to facilitate that shift — and as roll-out ramps up in 2021, a whole new range of cloud services at the 5G edge will better (and more affordably!) equip such wonders as machine-learning-enabled diagnostics and other healthcare applications that can exploit ultra-low latency access to end users and devices.