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.
Part 1 focused on the COVID Effect on the healthcare ecosystem, while here we dive into the specific trends and technologies that will continue to dominate the healthcare and digital health landscape for the rest of this year and beyond.
One of the major changes already taking hold in healthcare is telemedicine, a term often used interchangeably with telehealth. While telemedicine struggled to gain wide acceptance over the preceding years, it is here to stay beyond the pandemic. The “overnight success” of telemedicine during COVID-19 pandemic was 10+ years in the making, another example of how the pandemic became the catalyst for change in healthcare. “There are generations where nothing happens. There are decades where nothing happens. And there are weeks when decades happen.” said Roy Schoenberg, founder and CEO of Amwell.
There are several reasons for and indications of telemedicine’s status as a potential mainstay of the current healthcare system. These include HHS’ new reimbursement rules and relaxed licensing and HIPAA regulations during the pandemic. These changes make wider adoption by the healthcare providers possible, allowing them to see these technologies as additional tools in their arsenal. A survey by the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition found that almost 70% of healthcare providers are motivated by their work during the COVID-19 crisis to use more telehealth and connected health tools in the future. In response, the American Medical Association (AMA) in November 2020 came out with a policy of broad support and planned advocacy for widespread adoption of telehealth services beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, but just as importantly, the patients and patient advocates have fully embraced telemedicine, with its time-saving benefits as well as convenience and accessibility it affords.
Remote Patient Monitoring and Virtual Care
Similarly, Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) will continue to gain adoption in 2021, thanks also to new policies on coverage and reimbursement. The new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rule issued late last year allows medical professionals to “furnish RPM services to remotely collect and analyze physiologic data from patients with acute conditions, as well as patients with chronic conditions.” There are still some limitations here, including CMS’ refusal to extend the established patients restriction waiver beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ultimately, driven by the desire to improve clinical outcomes, industry will embrace integrated care. A combination or hybrid model of in-person visits when needed and virtual care delivered through telemedicine and Remote Patient Monitoring will become the norm.
Digital Health offerings will continue to expand, many broadening their focus from a single health problem to a more comprehensive, holistic approach to health. With the alarming rise of chronic disease in the United States among all age groups, there is an increasing need for novel solutions to this crisis. Many technologies are well positioned to help monitor people’s health, detect early signs of illness, empower patients and give medical providers a glimpse into their patients’ health-affecting habits and lifestyle outside of the doctor’s office. Patient-centered and patient-empowered care has been increasingly gaining traction. Patients, their caregivers and families are looking for sustainable solutions to chronic disease management that are more cost effective and better fit their busy lives.
One example of Digital Health that is continuing to gain traction is Wearable Technology. Use of wearables, including for early disease detection is on the rise. Because wearables, including smartwatches, make hundreds of thousands of measurements per day, they make for powerful monitoring devices. We know that when a human body fights off an infection, there are some signs, including rise in skin temperature and elevated heart rate. By continuously measuring these, wearable devices could help alert us well before humanly perceptible symptoms appear.
Digital Tools for Population Health
Expanding on the use of wearables and digital health for individual, “quantified self” kinds of benefits, they play an increasing role in serving as allies in population health efforts. Wearable devices, such as trackers and smartwatches, offer continuous access to real-time physiological data, and thus can provide unique insights into the state of our health. Research from Stanford Medicine demonstrated in 2017 that health data collected from wearables can help detect infectious illness days before any noticeable symptoms emerge. A 2020 research study showed that Oura ring can predict COVID-19 symptoms three days before the onset of symptoms with more than 90% accuracy. And 2021 Nature Electronics article cites multiple studies and states that “wearable electronic devices can be used in the early detection of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases of COVID-19”.
In addition to the ability of wearable technology combined with smart algorithms to warn an individual of the onset of their own infection, this could also be used at a population level to track contacts and potential infection transmission in communities, helping curb the spread of viral infections such as SARS-CoV-2.
Wearables also have a role to play in helping people return to work safely and keeping them healthy in their workplace.
Wearable technology could be used to track the proximity of employees to each other in order to ensure adherence to the social distancing guidelines. Another example is rapid COVID-19 testing on-site. We will continue to see expansion of capabilities and uses of wearables and microfluidic devices. Whether it is allowing employees to feel safe on the job, employers to ensure the health of their workforce, or other population health measures, these technologies will transform how we think about health and the workplace. We will continue to see expansion of capabilities and uses of wearables and microfluidic devices. Whether it is allowing employees to feel safe on the job, employers to ensure the health of their workforce, or other population health measures, these technologies will transform how we think about health and the workplace.
Cash will continue to flow into Digital Health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these companies experienced an influx of public and private investment at a level previously not seen by the industry. The pandemic was a catalyst here also, necessitating rapid development of digital healthcare options even for organizations that did not have those as part of their strategy pre-COVID. With increased demand, the value of many digital health companies rose as well. Several major deals in the space — like the 2020 Initial Public Offering (IPO) of the virtual care giant Amwell and the massive Teladoc/Livongo merger — have made the category of Digital Health a “household name”.
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