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5 trends that will shape healthcare in 2021

December 31, 2020 at 10:15:00 AM

If there is any lesson to be drawn from 2020, it’s that making predictions for the year ahead is an act of hubris. Despite that, some clear trends have emerged.



5 trends that will shape healthcare in 2021


Harry Greenspun M.D.

The pandemic has permeated every aspect of our lives: health, economics, politics, and beyond. Amid the devastation, the healthcare industry has been at the forefront.

We face more questions than answers. How quickly can vaccines be efficiently distributed across the entire populace, rather than select groups? What strategies will businesses embrace to thrive (or survive) going forward? How will the new administration tackle its inherited challenges and advance its healthcare agenda?

Thus, at the risk of being either foolish or arrogant, here are five of our predictions for healthcare in 2021.

A surge in digital health

Healthcare has often lagged other industries in adopting digital tools, but the pandemic dramatically narrowed the gap. Consumers, either unable or unwilling to leave their homes, quickly transitioned to online services for essential needs. Importantly, this even included the elderly, typically on the digital sidelines, who agreed to connect with caregivers on Zoom or FaceTime. Providers rushed to deploy new remote services to attract, treat, and retain patients, particularly for behavioral health.

Impact: The sudden shift to digital provided access to care and introduced consumers to a higher level of convenience. For many, there will be no going back. The industry will either deliver enriching online experiences for patients of all ages, or they will find their patients siphoned off by more compelling services.

Amid progress, this shift to telehealth and electronic communications has exacerbated health inequity. Patients who lack technology or access to affordable internet may be left further behind. It’s a danger that must be addressed at every level of the healthcare industry.

A new focus on agility

Covid-19 hit most institutions like an avalanche, disrupting nearly every aspect of operations. Some services, like intensive care and diagnostic testing, were overrun. Others were shut down as elective procedures were suspended. Employees found themselves without childcare, public transit, or the ability to work from home. Some organizations pivoted, re-assigning or re-training staff, transitioning to remote operations, and deploying tools to enable operational continuity. Others began to collapse, overwhelmed by clinical challenges, administrative failures, and financial losses.

Impact: Traditionally, organizations have prepared for specific incidents – tornados, mass casualties, and the like. The pandemic highlighted the critical value of leadership, capabilities, and culture to adapt to wholesale disruptions of their workforces, supply chains, and even business models. Going forward, planning will be done more holistically, requiring budget, advanced analytics and personal expertise. Of course, this may divert resources away from other initiatives.

The past as a predictor of the future

If there were a succinct way of describing healthcare following the 2009 financial crisis, it would be that the strong got stronger and the weak got weaker. Organizations that were better prepared heading into the crisis and better managed during it, emerged better positioned afterward. The converse was also true, with many organizations pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

Impact: As we found a decade ago, high performers will continue to grow, expanding their market share organically and through acquisition. Weaker performers will find themselves under siege not only from stronger players, but also from new entrants – retailers, digital healthcare providers, and others – eager to extend their industry footprint.

New risks and vulnerabilities in the virtual world

Healthcare has always been an attractive target for cyber criminals. The data is valuable, and the stakes are high. Providers face stiff penalties for data breaches and cannot afford to have the safety of their operations compromised. Equally importantly, patients need confidence that their privacy and confidentiality is secure.

However, the rush to virtual environments created new vulnerabilities. Staff began using their own devices and networks, training was postponed, and IT staff were diverted to deploying telehealth, remote monitoring, and work-from-home solutions. Clinical conversations migrated to unsecured email.

Impact: Not surprisingly, healthcare saw a surge of high-profile ransomware attacks. 2021 will be a year of security catch-up as organizations patch holes, retrain, and identify new risks created by their transformed operating environments. Furthermore, the industry will begin to address the challenges that arise as virtual care increases. Organizations may dramatically increase countermeasures to protect IT systems. If they don’t, cyberattacks and data breaches will only intensify.

The ascension and expansion of public health

What began as a public health emergency quickly morphed into a political battle and an economic crisis, creating a three-pronged disaster. Therefore, any solution that did not address the realities of the other two was destined to fail.

Impact: The pandemic has shown us that public health is essential to the economic and physical well-being of the country. Smart organizations will onboard this insight by listening and incorporating information, data, and insights from each leg of the healthcare stool. Operating in silos, proposals are a zero-sum game. However, by establishing public-private partnerships and working collaboratively, solutions can be crafted that meet the collective needs of our communities. Hopefully 2021 will be the year of building strong bridges.

Picture: Dmitrii_Guzhanin, Getty Images

Harry Greenspun M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer and a partner at Guidehouse, a global provider of consulting services. He works with government and commercial clients to transform their business processes and models, as well as achieve clinical and research excellence. He was formerly Chief Medical Officer at Dell Inc. and Northrup Grumman Corp.

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