5 Digital Health Trends Here to Stay for 2021 The last year was a watershed moment for innovation in healthcare. Here are key trends to guide your business and career.
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The common technological approach to innovation is to "break things and move fast". But when it comes to healthcare—where the first priority is to do no harm—you have to be a different kind of innovator. How do you break things, do no harm, and create a new and better reality? Welcome to being a healthcare entrepreneur—the most exciting place to be in innovation today and, if I had to guess, for the next decade at least.
This year changed everything. Although digital health was gathering steam before the pandemic, the crisis, with all its overwhelming tragedy, also ushered in tremendous intellectual energy and freedom. Almost overnight, so many of the old constraints were gone. Healthcare organizations, technologists, and government agencies proved for the first time that speed, innovation, and safety were indeed possible in healthcare.
Here are a few of the trends I have my eye on:
Consumerization of healthcare
From home delivery of prescription medication to sleek wearable electronics like the Apple Watch that can monitor an array of vital signs, healthcare is fast becoming a more consumer-oriented business. The digital revolution should have made this inevitable, but there were still many constraints in place. The pandemic changed every day as suddenly patients couldn't go to a physical office to receive care. At the same time, increased social isolation made many consumers realize they had to be in charge of their own care. Patient portals are a critical factor to directing one's own or a loved one's care.
The most sophisticated information—from treatment protocols to CT scans or genomic information—is going to be as easily accessible as your bank balance. As an entrepreneur, realize what this means. Imagine if you were the first to think about the implications of online banking? That is where we are today.
Telehealth is another way that healthcare has become more consumer-oriented since it opens up a range of access options for patients. With telehealth, consulting a doctor might take the form of a video visit, a phone call, or a text. The technology was a slow-growing trend hampered by regulations, security issues, and privacy concerns but once the pandemic made in-person visits problematic, telehealth exploded in popularity. Medical centers and insurance providers started to support and encourage its use, urging patients to download apps, which enable patients to schedule appointments and consult with doctors right on their smartphones.
Even once in-person visits return to a degree of normalcy, many people will want the convenience of doing doctor's visits or therapy sessions via video; and clinics and insurers may find that it's more cost-effective for people to receive basic care online than from in-person visits. One complication will be HIPAA requirements that were waived and whether they make a comeback. The question remains as to whether or not the industry will figure out how to satisfy those requirements to allow telehealth to survive.
VR has been with us for decades now, but when computer geeks talked about it with breathless wonder back in the 1990s, the technology was often viewed as recreational. The selling point being that by wearing a VR headset, you get to feel like you're in a video game or other fun, immersive experience. However, this consumer-driven technology has also become a powerful tool for the medical community. Educational institutions are using it to train future doctors, surgeons are testing techniques to prepare intricate surgeries, and even experienced physicians are finding it helpful for practicing new procedures and perfecting old ones. In 2021, expect continued advances in the tech and keep an eye on companies like Osso VR, which was founded by orthopedic surgeon and gaming enthusiast Justin Barad.
Even today, 3D printing technology models are available for free on the National Institute of Health (NIH) website. Think of what these tools could power for you and others. Large open-source databases of other data that can drive virtual reality experiences are becoming the norm.
Interoperability Among Vendors
The rapid growth in digital healthcare options has been game-changing for patients. It can make taking care of our health less of a chore and more of a personal mission to improve quality of life. But it can also be overwhelming. Take, for instance, the patient portals mentioned earlier. Although these portals are helpful, it can be annoying to have to login to separate systems for your doctor, your radiologist, your insurer, etc. – simply to manage one health issue. Then add in all the other health-related things we have to manage such as dentist appointments, fitness tracker data, prescriptions, and so on. It's a lot to juggle.
That's where interoperability comes in. This rising trend is about busting down information silos to create healthcare systems that work with each other. This makes life easier for everyone; not only the patient who is tired of having to manage multiple logins, but also the provider who need to access and share your health information with other members of your healthcare team. Interoperability can involve complete system overhauls. Organizations that want to prioritize interoperability need commitment from forward-thinking leaders who have the vision to see its value, necessity, and inevitability.
This is an enormous opportunity for someone who wants to do the hard and "boring" work. Personally, I like entrepreneurial ideas that are not particularly sexy. Interoperability—the basics of sharing vital data—is one of the most interesting areas for innovation today. It, too, will be subject to regulatory constraints, but the signs have never been rosier.
In digital healthcare, one advance builds on another, and interoperability is nothing without the cloud. Cloud infrastructure is key to opening up access between all of these disparate systems, so more and more organizations are adopting the cloud and will continue to do so into 2021.
One of the biggest advantages for healthcare organizations moving to the cloud is storage. A tremendous amount of data is generated daily in the world of health, much of it needing to be stored long-term. Cloud storage can be a more affordable alternative to maintaining ever-growing collections of servers on-site. The cloud can also be advantageous for sprawling hospital and university systems that need an easy way to share information, images, and records across campuses.
The devil is in the details in the cloud, and where the opportunity lies. Most of the big building blocks are now in place—AWS, Google, Microsoft are all fully engaged in healthcare. Yet, there are so many gaps in the actual implementation of each and every workflow. As an entrepreneur, if you can jump in and solve the point solutions, you can build an important business.
Every start-up aims to change the world, but in healthcare, the stakes are different. Organizations should ensure that their goals and mission statements align with improved patient care, day-to-day workflow solutions for physicians, and maintaining the utmost regard to privacy and security regulations. It's a challenging task, but if you are up for it, an incredibly rewarding and potentially life-saving one as well