Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare companies have had to develop new ways of delivering care. But one aspect has remained constant: having effective digital tools is critical in order to make it to the future.
Even though the importance of digital strategies is not a new concept, it has taken on whole new meaning now that healthcare providers have become more reliant on them during the pandemic.
If a healthcare organization hopes to survive, it will need to adopt digital platforms that patients can actually use to receive proper care, according to Neil Patel, the president of Healthbox, a HIMSS innovation company.
“The context of digital strategy and why it’s so critical right now is fundamentally different,” he said. “It’s basically to sustain the ongoing operations of your healthcare-delivery system.”
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
Before the switch, most companies used their digital platforms to help consumers easily pay their bills or schedule appointments, according to Patel.
That quickly changed once the pandemic began.
“Health systems almost overnight had to stand up a full virtual care offering because the brick-and-mortar care-delivery models that they had existed on for forever were no longer going to work because of COVID-19 related restrictions,” Patel said.
Without traditional ways of receiving healthcare, the demand for virtual care has increased significantly. Frost & Sullivan estimates that the prevalence of telehealth will increase by 64.3% nationwide this year because of COVID-19.
The companies that already had strong digital teams before the pandemic seem to be coming out on top, Patel said. Those companies that already had a platform that patients engaged with were able to scale what they already had to meet the new needs instead of having to create a completely new system.
“The health systems that had already invested the time and effort to put together a clear digital strategy and were executing on it … are in a less-frenzied state of digital-strategy development,” Patel said.
He also said that while many healthcare organizations are still experiencing financial losses and layoffs, they are also seeing growth in their digital teams.
The investor dollars continue to pour into digital health amid the pandemic. By the end of Q1 this year, U.S. digital health companies raised a record-breaking $3.1 billion – more than 1.5 times the amount raised during any previous Q1, according to a Rock Health report.
That trend doesn't appear to be letting up. In Q2 there have been major investments, including a $194 million investment in telehealth giant AmWell, and a $100 million raise from digital mental health company Mindstrong.
AREAS OF INTEREST
In addition to revealing the future of digital healthcare, COVID-19 has shed light on specific areas in healthcare that need more attention. Remote monitoring, contact tracing, digital mental health services and the social determinants of health are all places that Patel says organizations should invest more in.
As for remote monitoring, patients with acute care needs may now be able to avoid having to go to a hospital to receive their care if they have the right digital health setup at home. Historically, the Hospital at Home model has been found to be safer and just as effective in treating the patient as a physical hospital would be, according to the JAMA Network.
Contact-tracing tools have been one of the more popular trends in the digital health space as of late. Apps from Zebra, Apple and CarePredict have all been released this year with the goal of curbing the spread of COVID-19.
These apps have also come with their share of controversy though. A recent report from the International Digital Accountability Council (IDAC) found that some contact-tracing apps aren’t keeping users’ data secure.
In addition to contact-tracing apps, the market has also seen a surge of demand for mental health services that has largely been met by digital tools, according to Patel. Providers have been able to utilize AI technology in order to provide counseling services for those who need them.
“For people who have gone through the COVID crisis [who] need grief counseling, we’re seeing a more holistic approach to helping with the mental health of the workforce, as well as the communities themselves,” Patel said.
Earlier this year, the FDA, the CMS and the HHS Office of Civil Rights all updated their policies on telehealth in order to make care more accessible during the pandemic.
Having care be available is especially important for those who live in under-resourced areas.
“People ... have a lot of housing insecurity or job insecurity or transportation insecurity … and that has led to higher rates of COVID in communities that were already challenged from a social determinants of health standpoint,” Patel said.
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Although the need to provide quality healthcare hasn’t changed due to COVID-19, the way that care is provided has vastly changed.
If providers are to continue into the future, the time to act is now, Patel stressed.
“In order for companies to maintain some semblance of normalcy going into the next spike [of COVID-19], they need to double down on their digital investment,” he said.
Patel recommends the companies use this time as a window of opportunity to evaluate how well their digital platforms function.
One way to do so is with the HIMSS Digital Health Indicator, which companies can use as a road map as they create an adaptable digital strategy. The tool uses four dimensions to track progress, including governance and workforce, predictive analytics, interoperability, and person-enabled health.
“There is no endpoint to the digital transformation of healthcare,” Patel said. “It’s only going to continue to get more and more advanced over time.”
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