Healthcare has historically been slower than other industries to adopt cloud infrastructure and related data technologies despite evidence of their potential to improve internal efficiency and enhance the quality of patient care. The highly regulated nature of the healthcare industry, the need to keep health data secure and the anticipated challenges of transitioning from legacy systems kept many hospitals and providers hesitant to embrace real digital transformation.
COVID-19 changed that overnight. In seemingly an instant, focus shifted from getting patients into the hospital or doctor’s office to keeping them out — while at the same time ensuring they were receiving the care they needed.
Telehealth surged to the forefront. AI and data technologies were implemented at a rapid pace to remotely track patient status and pandemic trends. Patients increasingly depended on wearable tech and other at-home tools to self-monitor symptoms.
Looking to the future, these digital transformation efforts show potential to decentralize healthcare in ways that will lead to more educated and proactive patients, less crowded hospitals and doctors offices, better preventative care, and an overarching shift in the way we view healthcare. Many healthcare providers now rely on cloud computing technologies to share information with other providers and patients. Digital transformation of the healthcare industry could lead to more patient autonomy and better ongoing health management.
Telehealth Takes Over
Telehealth usage skyrocketed at the start of the pandemic. The CDC reported last spring that telehealth use increased by 154% in March 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. While those rates declined as provider offices opened up again, they remained steadily higher than they were pre-pandemic and providers and patients indicate more willingness to implement these practices long-term.
In a survey done in May 2020, McKinsey found that 76% of consumers are interested in using telehealth going forward, and 57% of providers view telehealth more favorably than they did pre-pandemic. The CDC reports that in 2020, 95% of healthcare providers had telehealth capabilities, up from 43% in 2019.
The trend has continued in 2021. In April, 44% of primary care visits covered by Medicare (the country’s largest insurer) were conducted via telehealth, compared to just .1% (!) in February 2020.
Telehealth presents a number of benefits. High-risk populations like seniors and those with chronic conditions can more easily access care via telehealth, which doesn’t require the extra time and challenge of physically traveling to a doctor’s office.
Those who aren’t high risk but may have been less likely to consistently see a doctor, like busy professionals, can access quicker and more convenient primary care check-ins with their providers.
Telehealth also prevents potential spread of viruses or infections carried by sick people needing to leave their home for a doctor visit.
Permanent, widespread implementation of telehealth options would require increased coverage (many insurers are already reverting back to co-pays and in-person visit requirements) as well as relaxed regulations around systems and security.
Providers would also need to invest in telehealth infrastructure that better integrates with their overall systems (vs. quick solutions like FaceTime or Skype implemented during the pandemic).
But benefits like more preventative care, better access, and less spread make telehealth worth pursuing, even if it requires extra effort to find long-term financial and system solutions.
The AI and Wearable Tech Potential
The pandemic highlighted the key role data plays in healthcare on scales both large and small. The former saw the importance of real-time trend analysis and the use of AI to address major issues around the spread of the virus, uncovering predictors of severe cases, and rolling out testing and vaccines.
BlueDot, a Canadian startup, was one of the first to spot the emergence of COVID-19 and is now part of spearheading the effort toward enhancing predictive technology so that it can play an even bigger role in tracking the spread of disease around the world going forward. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla emphasized AI’s critical role in their vaccine trials and public rollout.
On a smaller scale, individual providers and patients depended on wearable tech and portable devices to track data that provided important health information. Sales of pulse oximeters, for example, spiked by 500% as people used them at home to monitor blood oxygen levels while infected with COVID-19 to help inform decisions about if and when to seek hospital care.
Pandemic or no pandemic, wearable tech has been increasing in popularity and gives individuals uninterrupted access to monitoring their own health. Smart watches alone are revolutionizing health tracking — they track activity levels, heart rate, body temperature, sleep cycles, even stress levels. The newest Apple Watch can take an ECG anywhere.
Wearable tech offers an unprecedented ability for individuals to understand how healthy they are and know in advance when there might be a problem. This removes a lot of guesswork for patients, which could increase efficiency of hospitals and provider care centers as informed patients likely means less precautionary “just in case” visits to the doctor.
One of wearable tech’s biggest benefits is its ability to feed information directly to an app that tracks and stores historical data so individuals can understand their health over time. In healthcare, the biggest potential lies in the ability to feed information directly to providers (and potentially government organizations and private companies like BlueDot), opening the door for better patient care while allowing organizations in the industry to discover large-scale insights that could impact disease prevention, treatment strategies, and crisis management.
The Cloud Potential
Data capabilities like those outlined above are dependent on the willingness of healthcare providers to embrace the cloud and their efficiency in implementing its infrastructure. This is no small feat in an industry notoriously hesitant to let go of legacy systems.
But any movement toward data-driven strategy requires cloud adoption, and analytics aren’t the only benefit. The cloud facilitates process optimization and increases accessibility for both patients and providers.
In the cloud, records are updated in real time and can be shared between providers to allow for collaboration in patient care.
Patients gain better access to their own records through the use of patient portals. More than 90% of providers now offer portal access for patients, and while patient adoption is lower (many still prefer to discuss conditions with providers), portals do eliminate the necessary “no news is good news” strategy that doctors often had to take due to limited bandwidth.
Portals also allow for automated appointment reminders and access to historical health information for patients — both of which could encourage proactive patient behavior like scheduling necessary follow-up procedures and keeping up with annual check-ups.
Digital transformation efforts and data-powered technologies have extraordinary capabilities when it comes to large-scale trend-tracking and predictive analytics that can foresee public health crises and drive high-level strategy.
But they also have potential to decentralize healthcare in ways that could fundamentally impact the way patients and providers interact, ultimately leading to more educated patients, better preventative care, and less crowded (and thus more efficient) hospitals and provider care centers.
Telehealth, the cloud, patient portals, wearable tech, data tracking — it all really comes down to information. More informed patients and more data-driven, efficient providers can ultimately lead to better outcomes if the right strategies can be implemented and scaled up.
The result? A fundamental shift toward patient autonomy that creates a sense of ownership over one’s individual health and changes our view of healthcare from an occasional necessity for treating health problems to an ongoing resource for health maintenance easily integrated into our everyday lives.
Michael Brenner is a keynote speaker, author and CEO of Marketing Insider Group. Michael has written hundreds of articles on sites such as Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Guardian and he speaks at dozens of leadership conferences each year covering topics such as marketing, leadership, technology and business strategy. Follow him @BrennerMichae
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