Life Sciences & HealthcareApril 19, 2021

What to Expect in 2021 in Healthcare and Digital Health, Part 1

This two-part blog series examines the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the…
Avatar Irma Rastegayeva

This two-part blog series examines the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the health, tech and life sciences industries, global health policy and individual behavior shifts, and then lays out predictions for 2021. 

This article’s focus is on the COVID Effect on the healthcare ecosystem, while Part 2 will deep-dive into the specific trends and technologies that we anticipate will dominate the healthcare and digital health landscape for the rest of this year and beyond.

The COVID Effect

While many of the technology trends and digital health predictions for last year will continue in 2021, there are some shifts and trends of note.

Now that the new US Administration has had a chance to establish its priorities and set the vision for the country, we have more visibility into their stance on public health, focus on science and support of public-private partnerships, and can now make these predictions with more certainty.

The global Coronavirus pandemic has brought with it death and devastation, with human suffering reaching every corner of the world.

But, remarkably, this crisis also served as a catalyst for innovation from sourcing and making of PPE by resourceful individuals, to multiple COVID-19 vaccines being developed and approved in timeframes that have never before been seen, anywhere in the world, with any prior vaccine. The “COVID Effect” is also very pronounced in the increasing adoption of the new Digital Health technologies, including Telemedicine, Remote Patient Monitoring and several others, which we will cover in detail in part 2 of this series.

COVID-19 Mitigation and Health Policy

While great strides have been made already in combating the global crisis, we are not nearly “out of the woods” yet here in the US and in most parts of the world. The development and refinement of COVID-19 vaccines will continue to be the focus of researchers, scientists and companies across the Life Sciences landscape. The battle continues to address the new mutations and variants of SARS-COV-2 virus, and the race to get ahead of the future ones by designing new, mutation-proof vaccines is just beginning.

Even with the highly efficacious and effective vaccines now available, another formidable challenge remains: vaccine hesitancy. Despite the staggering death toll from COVID-19 and vaccines that have been proven safe and effective, less than 60% of respondents in recent US surveys said they would get vaccinated, falling short of the 70% threshold needed to achieve herd immunity. Targeted population health policies will need to be put in place to address vaccine hesitancy as well as address efficient distribution across the country and concerns about vaccine equity.

To address these challenges, the role of the world gold standard organizations like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will increase as their independence is being restored under the new administration. With that, the public’s confidence and trust in their recommendations and policies will grow as well. With more people being fully vaccinated over time and corresponding reduction in hospitalizations and deaths, the attitudes towards vaccine acceptance will improve.

Public Health and Social Determinants of Health

The pandemic also brought into sharp focus the importance of Public Health measures and Social Determinants of Health (SDOH). COVID-19 has disproportionately affected several socio-economic groups, with these same populations also suffering worse health outcomes of COVID disease. While SDOH have been talked about by policy influencers and championed by some physicians and patient advocacy groups for some time, the COVID-19 crisis highlights SDOH as an important factor in health outcomes. In 2021, we will see movement towards more standardised data collection and measurement of Social Determinants of Health in order to design effective health interventions to improve population health outcomes.

Another important area that is coming into focus under the new Administration is Public Health. President Biden has enacted measures through executive action and the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package to expedite COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration, safe reopening of schools and much more. He is taking a much more progressive approach to Public Health, including ensuring people have no out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing, treatments and vaccinations.

The Fauci Effect

There is another unexpected upside of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US: the record number of medical school enrollment applications, known as the “Fauci Affect”. Even as higher education enrollment overall has fallen in 2020, people are inspired by the decades of service and dedication to the profession by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Young people are inspired by the front-line healthcare workers and are drawn to the profession that can make such a difference in people’s lives, impact their health and the health and wellbeing of their communities.

While the full effects of this unprecedented surge in medical school enrollment will not be seen for some time, the influx of new people, shaped by the pandemic and determined to make a difference, will be a catalyst for some much needed systemic changes in our healthcare system.

The Mental Health Crisis 

This past year, since the global pandemic wreaked havoc on our lives in so many ways, has been hard for us all. The burdens of the economic recession, school closures, social justice protests, political divisions and mounting COVID-19 deaths have become a heavy toll on our mental health. The worry, uncertainty and loss of control have caused damaging emotional side effects: creating or exacerbating stress, anxiety and depression, and creating feelings of isolation and loneliness. Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index revealed that three in five Americans (61%) consider themselves lonely and highlighted the negative business impact of loneliness. The pandemic has further contributed to the rising mental health crisis in this country, where nearly one in five adults (51.5 million) live with a mental illness, according to the NIH 2019 data. 

All this has turbocharged demand for mental health services. The pandemic significantly accelerated investment in and adoption of various telehealth programs, including tele-mental and tele-behavioral health, which will continue to grow in 2021.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll do a deep-dive into the specific trends and technologies that we anticipate will dominate the healthcare and digital health landscape for the rest of 2021 and beyond.

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