The healthcare industry has changed at a rapid pace in the last year due to the global pandemic. Healthcare challenges drive innovation, and COVID-19 had patients and clinicians embracing technology in a whole new way.
Moving forward, healthcare industry leaders face the new challenge of navigating a future that utilizes these technological advances even as things return to business as usual. Healthcare is forever changed by lessons learned from COVID-19, with 77% of people willing to use some form of telehealth after COVID-19, and 70% of behavioral health specialists noting they will continue offering virtual services after the pandemic.
Financial concerns, digital health and AI are areas receiving attention when it comes to healthcare challenges and solutions. The next step is for healthcare leaders to take a deeper look into the lessons learned during the pandemic and utilize them to shape the future.
With all of this in mind, we asked HIMSS Global Health Conference collaborators for their thoughts on healthcare challenges today. Here’s what they had to say.
Getting the right data to the right person, at the right time is still an urgent problem impacting the delivery of high-quality, affordable healthcare. The most important areas needing focused attention are:
A: Patient/provider identity issues. We need a focused, private/public initiative to address the challenges around establishing patient and caregiver identity. The issues with provider identity offer proof that a single national identifier is not the best answer. We need to establish a national algorithm working with large data sets, along with the appropriate security apparatus, and implement it across the board.
B: We need to harmonize new Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology mandates (information blocking) with state privacy regulations.
C: Technical teams need to stop trying to DIY every interoperability problem. There are specialists in this area along with middleware that supports better, faster connectivity. The DIY way most people are trying now is ultimately the most expensive approach.
Security, security, security. I am excited about the advancements in technology such as network micro-segmentation and its ability to better secure Protected Health Information.
Software-based segmentation provides an extra layer of security ensuring that even if a breach were to occur, they would not be able to move throughout the network. Datacenter attacks rely on lateral movement to spread to critical systems, micro-segmentation acts as a distributed firewall and stops the spread. If you have not upgraded your infrastructure recently, better start now, or find partners who have.
I think the most important lesson is how critical public health reporting is during a health crisis, and how antiquated current systems are (CSV files!). Federal and state agencies need money to acquire and implement updated systems that support healthcare messaging standards such as HL7v2 and FHIR. Then provider organizations need funding support to integrate with those updated systems. But with limited funding, I question how we are going to get the industry’s focus on this urgent issue.
With ransomware attacks now happening at a pace of roughly seven attacks per hour, securing the safety of the healthcare delivery organization’s (HDOs) patients, operations and financial information is the top challenge. While there certainly are tactical steps to take to overcome this, the biggest step is the most obvious and fundamental of them all: stop putting it off and act now. Possessing some of the most highly valued data for hackers, the healthcare industry as a whole needs to commit to investing in their cybersecurity at the same level as other industries like banking and insurance where they are spending significantly more of their budgets on protecting data. Many hospitals have already learned the painful lesson that it’s easier to prevent a breach than recover from one, and healthcare as a whole needs to start raising industry standards to deter hackers from targeting them.
I believe that telehealth, telemedicine and virtual hospitals are the most significant and transformative innovations in the healthcare industry today. The ability to provide medical care remotely is democratizing access to high-level healthcare and specialized services in so many regions that previously lacked access to them. When it comes to patient care, telehealth-powered virtual visits and remote monitoring are seen as the most effective and most accessible means to decongest care centers—offsiting routine consultations, expanding outpatient capabilities, and shortening interned recovery times.
Though we're definitely seeing a disproportionate increase in telemedicine among the larger healthcare delivery organizations with greater resources, it's fair to say that the trend to telehealth is significant across the board.
Two major lessons learned from COVID-19 are wrapped in digitization and remote work technologies. On the one hand, many, if not most of us, were able to carry on the bulk of what we do because of remote technologies. During COVID-19, that was invaluable for hospitals to keep things going and keep workers safe. On the other hand, many weren't really prepared to deal with the barrage of attacks from bad actors who saw this as a huge exposure and opportunity. The overall lesson being validation of what we see time and time again... digital technology is fantastic but it's also a big problem if we don't secure it properly.
Our industry's top challenge is rooted in our persistent use of fragmented delivery and multi-party economic systems that do not center incentives and preferences around the patient's best interests. To overcome this challenge, all industry participants should consider their role in transforming their strategies to follow health consumers throughout their journeys and remove barriers in the way of realizing workflow and data continuity throughout the health consumer's journey. To do this well does not mean to simply digitize or turbo-charge the existing approach, but a comprehensive shift in thinking and a transformation in how we serve the health needs of our population.
Healthcare will increasingly occur at the time, place and modality that an individual prefers and that provides the most amount of value. The atomic unit of valuable healthcare is patient-centered collaboration. An impactful innovation should be adopting a data and analytics driven approach to understand this unit and then delivering the full spectrum of health engagement to usher our industry into a true consumer-centric industry where insights from conversations will provide a complete idea of who they are, what their attitudes about their health are, what their needs are, the context of how they manage their health, and what needs to happen next; all leading to a greater bond of trust and effectiveness in the traditional patient/provider relationship, as well as better outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed many vulnerabilities and weak spots in our health ecosystem, but there are a few I would highlight as features of a better system we should sustain as our new normal. First is addressing non-medical factors to assist in preventing sickness and disease. Most people dying from COVID-19 have one or more chronic diseases and belong to a marginalized segment of our population. Developing a united front with public health, community resources, convenient access to care, and an informed patient will improve the structural weaknesses of our misaligned health ecosystem and prevent the devastation we experienced with COVID-19 when future pandemics arise. We should also acknowledge the heroism of the clinical team response during this event and use that momentum to establish better systems for managing burnout, recognizing mental health issues in our caregivers and growing the clinical front-line workforce.
While it may be strange to say, one positive outcome from the pandemic is it made the entire country more aware of the lack of communication, coordination and automation we have in the healthcare industry. In particular, it placed a spotlight on the limitations the public health sector has in sharing and leveraging health data to coordinate a response, not only on a national level but on a state and local level as well. Up to this point, I believe that lack of awareness was our biggest challenge.
Now, we as an industry need to work together to take swift action to improve health data exchange, analysis and care coordination. By providing both a foundation and a conduit for health data exchange across public health entities and with providers, we will see a positive waterfall effect on other key challenges our industry faces—everything ranging from physician burnout to improved patient outcomes and access to healthcare.
When we talk about the future of healthcare, my first thought is not of technology or innovation. Rather, I immediately think of the clinicians, the practice managers, the front- and back-office staff and other healthcare professionals who show up each day to ensure we have access to healthcare when we need it most.
My focus is to make their lives easier through innovations that can automate tedious work and improve processes so they can focus on patient care, and we can help reduce physician and staff burnout. Technology like telehealth and remote patient monitoring and innovations to standardize digital data sharing—both regarding the usability of the data and access to the data—could provide a strong foundation for the future.
As we look back, three key themes standout to me: agility, empowerment and community.
First, we all faced a once in a lifetime (hopefully) pandemic that in an instant changed almost every facet of our lives. Our healthcare system had to be agile. Overnight. We saw ballparks becoming vaccination sites, parking garages becoming triage centers, and clinicians being superheroes. We need to remember that we can (and should) adapt quickly when needs arise.
Second, we empowered providers and patients to have more control in how they provided and received care. Telehealth solutions were launched almost overnight. Patients took to portals and other digital means to keep connected with their clinicians. This flexibility and empowerment is an essential tool in keeping our communities healthy.
Last, but certainly not least, while we all know that health is personal, I think we are even more aware now that it is also impactful—to a person’s family, their community, their country and even the world. While it is still important to put the patient at the center of care, we can’t lose sight of the community around us. When one is impacted, all are impacted.
Labor is the primary challenge we are facing in healthcare today. On the one hand, virtual health platforms and artificial intelligence are changing the way we think about clinicians’ role in patient care, and the way we manage and run our organizations. On the other hand, many providers in many communities cannot attract and retain the right mix of skilled labor.
Healthcare will always be human and need humans to function. Digital health and technology will help humans do new and incredible things. Navigating that balance between the role of technology and what humans do, and where they do it, will define healthcare over the next decade.
Artificial intelligence will have the greatest effect on the future of healthcare. AI’s ability to instantly synthesize incredible amounts of data could finally deliver the evidence-based, precise medicine that can optimally treat each unique patient in a way that improves outcomes, reduces cost and maximizes the patient experience.
AI carries certain risks, too, which could also impact the future of healthcare. The pandemic has laid bare many of the glaring health inequities in our country. Technology can both address and exacerbate these inequities. Society is rife with examples of advanced analytics built on biased data that disparately impact already marginalized groups. For good or for ill, AI will have the greatest impact on the future of healthcare of any technology or innovation we know of today.
The primary lesson we should take away from COVID-19 is that the continuum of care can and should be customized for each patient. We can monitor and treat patients from the comfort of their homes, or wherever they find themselves. Digital health technology is bringing the same virtual experience to healthcare that our patients have with their banks and grocery stores. Healthcare must lean into this consumerism.
We must not interpret this to mean that all care must eventually be performed virtually, in whole or in part, for every patient. Digital health technology affords us and our patients the option of virtual care. To truly capture the opportunity this represents we must customize the mix of virtual and physical care we provide based on each specific patient’s preferences and clinical needs. Other industries have perfected the mass customization of their services and the pandemic thrust this same challenge onto healthcare.
The views and opinions expressed in this content or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.
In the State of Healthcare Report, HIMSS and its Trust partners—Accenture, The Chartis Group and ZS—uncover healthcare barriers and offer key takeaways on current trends, opportunities and insights to drive real progress.
Updated June 22, 2021