Digital transformation is the topic du jour in healthcare today. Everyone – from the board and the C-suite, to the health IT team, to doctors and nurses – is talking about how digital technologies can change the industry and bring about better care and better outcomes.
Some forward-looking professionals are even talking about digital-first healthcare – meaning caregivers and patients will turn to the digital channel before other options.
That is the opinion of Ron Emerson, RN, global healthcare lead at Zoom, as he looks ahead at what he believes will be some developments in healthcare in 2022.
He sees three major developments: healthcare will become a digital-first system; decentralization will become a major theme for health and life sciences organizations; and video will be part of every healthcare experience.
Healthcare IT News interviewed Emerson to have him expand upon his predictions for the year.
Q. You suggest that this year, healthcare will become a digital-first system. How will this transformation occur? What will be the key information technologies?
A. Healthcare has always been complex and dynamic, requiring providers to adapt to changing patient needs. This is true now more than ever as we adjust to different models of payment, consumer-driven healthcare and the need for greater access to care – building on lessons learned from the rapid digitization forced by the pandemic.
We know there is a correlation between access to care and quality of care, and this is why a digital-first, easy-entrance healthcare system is crucially important. It’s key to note that digital-first does not mean digital-only healthcare. What it does mean is that a first encounter or ongoing treatment through a hybrid model mixing in-person and virtual care has the promise of becoming the new norm.
This trend to digital-first healthcare is accelerated by continuing innovation of digital applications in everything from care delivery to medical training and how providers are being reimbursed. We are seeing how capabilities like device-less screening can measure things like pulse, blood pressure, respiration, oxygen levels and stress without monitors or medical instruments – using audio, video and other technologies already available on a person’s mobile phone.
These developments hint at how the healthcare system of the future could connect patients with care teams from their homes, with a digital-first model heralding greater access and flexibility for patients. Virtual tools also facilitate access to medical training, as healthcare providers now can seek expert guidance from the other side of the globe at the touch of a button.
With the shift to value-based pay and capitated rates, providers are rethinking models of care delivery. Digital-first healthcare helps direct and allocate resources in a direction most effective for an individual patient.
In 2022 and beyond, we expect to see this trend continue as companies develop more innovative ways for patients to stay connected to doctors without needing to travel to a medical facility.
A key factor driving the adoption of a digital-first care model is the ability to manage patients regardless of location, thereby decreasing the use of unnecessary resources. For example, if a patient utilizes a video visit with their provider and does not need to use their local emergency room, urgent care center, or primary care doctor resources and real estate, this reduces costs.
Video as an entry point also can decrease the chance of clinical exacerbations due to early detection, leading to better outcomes. In addition to the benefits for patients, this becomes more important for the bottom line as we move toward value-based pay and capitated rates.
We also must be aware of the impact of shifting consumer preferences given the new choices recipients have. Traditional care delivery is not working for far too many consumers. As illustrated in a 2019 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the percentage of adults in the United States with a primary care physician has been on the decline for years.
By 2015, 45% of adults under 29 and 25% of all adults in a nationally representative sample did not have a PCP. This underlines the need to create ways for this population to receive healthcare before issues escalate into emergencies requiring greater interventions and resources. Easy access to care is a key component of how people choose their provider, making the provision of that accessible care a business driver.
One example of how video-assisted virtual visits provide easy access for patients is the ability to capture objective data over video without the need for medical devices. Organizations are using the same technology found within an Apple Watch to capture biometric data such as vital signs and stress levels by simply having the patient participate on a video call.
We now are seeing how we can take the powerful tools already embedded in ordinary mobile phones and use them for a digital-first experience with healthcare providers and organizations. In 2022 and beyond, we expect to see more innovation in this space as developers find ways to screen for more vitals and conditions without the need for specialized equipment.
Many of us might struggle to remember the last time we were physically in our bank. We interact with the banking system digitally first with the ability to follow up in-person as the situation dictates. In this model, the necessary delivery of services is dictated by the application or service being provided.
This paradigm is key to healthcare, as well, increasing efficiencies and quality of care in our system by letting the need drive the delivery model. Digital-first entry to interactions with healthcare professionals and organizations is simpler and more patient-friendly than older models.
Q. You predict that decentralization will become a major theme for health and life science organizations. Please elaborate.
A. Traditionally, access to specialized care has required a patient to travel to the center where that specialist is located – a burden sometimes involving frequent travel to another state. Participation in a clinical trial meant temporary relocation for some patients, while development of treatments was hampered by difficulty communicating at speed between offices spread around the world.
Decentralization improves access, which is critical to both the provision of care to patients and the ability for life sciences organizations to innovate at speed and scale.
In healthcare, decentralization will improve access to care for rural and remote areas. We already are seeing how the ability to integrate video calling with medical devices, such as stethoscopes, otoscopes and dermoscopes allows patients to receive high-quality care in a virtual clinic setting, cutting down on the need to travel for routine appointments to larger medical centers.
This is important because we don’t just have a healthcare provider shortage, we also have a maldistribution of clinicians in larger urban centers while millions of people live and work in rural areas. With decentralization, patients can receive high-quality care virtually from a rural clinic with the support of their primary care provider or see a specialist in their home over a virtual visit.
Decentralized clinical trials are already growing in popularity. These allow pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations to reach a more diverse patient pool and create a more accessible experience for patients as research no longer needs to be tied to specific trial sites.
Patients with rare diseases and experts with highly specialized talents are located around the world, so it makes sense to capitalize on the promise of digital technology – after all, it’s easier to move information than it is to move people.
Life sciences organizations also can take advantage of better collaboration technology, allowing for increased cohesion across global teams, so as to recruit the very best talent to work on complex problems.
As work-from-home technology continues to improve, we expect a positive impact on the research and development side for life sciences organizations. Decentralization in life sciences works across all aspects of the drug development life cycle – from R&D, regulatory, clinical drug trials, to manufacturing and GTM [go-to-market] strategies.
In 2022 and beyond, we expect to see more healthcare organizations and life sciences organizations take advantage of these technologies to enhance their provision of care and ability to collaborate.
Q. Video is obviously Zoom’s bread and butter. And you suggest that video this year will be part of every healthcare experience. How do you think video will become that pervasive?
A. We’re already seeing how a digital-first entry point to the healthcare system helps support patient care. Video powers this digital-first connection, enabling virtual visits, at-home treatment and mental healthcare in the comfort of one’s own home.
Video-assisted virtual visits provide a popular and powerful first contact point for a doctor to assess a patient’s condition and determine if in-person care is needed. With device-less screening and the ability to see and hear a patient, doctors are able to administer care for certain conditions and advise patients to come for an in-person follow-up when necessary.
We are seeing a shift from traditional fee-for-service models to value-based care where capitated rates or other alternative payment systems are being utilized. These different payment models give providers the flexibility to not just focus on “sick care” but to look at impactful ways to keep patients healthy.
Wellness and prevention, care coordination, multidisciplinary care teams and discharge planning –all over live or pre-recorded video sessions – are just a few examples of how video will be part of an individual’s healthcare experience.
The need for social distancing during the past two years has shown how many diagnostic tests can be performed without traveling to a medical facility. As home blood tests become more prevalent, they will continue to improve patient experience, obviating the need to travel to a clinic for routine blood draws.
At-home COVID-19 tests have created an avenue to help control the pandemic without requiring patients to leave their homes, therefore, lowering chances of exposing others to the virus. At-home diagnostic tests deliver a key component of care, but video takes this to the next level by providing the ability for a healthcare professional to react to the results and provide next steps.
Through video, the components of at-home diagnostics and care delivery come together. The ability to deliver remote instruction and supervision, combined with the increasing array of tests that patients can perform in the home, will help lower the barrier to care when demographics and geography isolate patients from the care they need.
Video also provides a powerful delivery mechanism for mental healthcare. The ability to connect with a therapist or mental health professional over video from a private location helps patients overcome the fear of stigma. Providing care in the patients’ own home can aid with comfort and relaxation, while a therapist can gain more insight into how the patient feels in their ordinary surroundings.
As public understanding of the importance of mental health continues to grow, the number of organizations innovating ways to deliver mental healthcare through virtual visits is a sign of hope.
The power of video to serve as an entry point, assist routine treatment and make mental healthcare more accessible illustrates how the healthcare industry is using new technologies to provide better care for patients.