9 healthcare innovation leaders share their predictions for digital health in 2021

Many healthcare professionals said they think the rapid acceleration of digital health technologies that the industry experienced in 2020 will continue to grow in the next year.

Below, nine healthcare innovation leaders from hospitals, health systems and healthcare companies across the country share their predictions for digital health in 2021.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jeff Semenchuk, chief innovation officer, Blue Shield of California (Oakland): While the healthcare industry has historically been resistant to change, COVID-19 certainly accelerated innovation in a few key areas, which will continue into the new calendar year.

One is interoperability and standardization across medical records. To date, sharing and exchanging medical records between all of your doctors and healthcare providers has been nearly impossible because they all operate independently, and the data exists in silos. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a glaring example for the need to access and share records digitally across your providers.

Another is remote managed care for patients with chronic conditions. New care-delivery platforms and in-home care for chronically ill people can provide community-based, physician-led care to patients who have complex health issues and multiple, specific chronic illnesses. Through delivered, home-based medical and behavioral care, social support services will offer patients 24/7 routine visits, urgent care visits and post-discharge home visits to ensure a safe transition from the hospital or skilled nursing setting back to their place of residence. As a result of COVID, patients are looking for these types of options.

The final innovation is access to resources for preventive and holistic care. Online and in-person programs to support patients’ general well-being, preventive care and disease reversal are a must. Leveraging the power of your lifestyle and combining it with research and technology will enable people to take full control in their health journey. With the cost of healthcare rising, providing tools to prevent or reverse diseases that could be costly for patients and the system is a win-win.

Omkar Kulkarni, chief innovation officer at Children's Hospital Los Angeles: 2021 will be a year of realignment in digital health. As provider systems adjust to the next normal, they will find that consumer preferences for convenience, experience and cost are even stronger than before the pandemic. This will drive health systems to lean on digital tools to bridge gaps in their care delivery models. Health systems will look to virtual care offerings as differentiators in their competitive markets, especially when coupled with remote monitoring and digital therapeutic offerings that can provide wraparound virtual services. Finally, digital connectivity will be recognized as a social determinant of health, and health systems will begin to partner with internet service providers to bridge the digital divide for their most vulnerable populations.

David Shulkin, MD, president of Shulkin Solutions and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: By the end of 2021, more than one-third of patients will access their healthcare through a hospital or health system's digital front door, which provides a single point of entry to provider services.

Chris Coburn, chief innovation officer, Mass General Brigham (Boston): COVID-19 management and learnings will dominate healthcare in 2021 as they did in 2020. Among them will be restructuring and optimizing supply chains. There will be increased intelligence and AI in nearly every supply chain category. Another major theme in 2021, partly driven by COVID-19, will be the increased use of digital to shrink distances, drive growth and enhance care overall — such as the expansion of remote monitoring/assessment and online scheduling — and all of it integrated with the EHR. 

The disparities that COVID-19 exacerbated will receive redoubled efforts and significant new initiatives. On the business end, providers will use more micro-targeting in their marketing as Google and others become ever more prominent in healthcare. Also, expect to see active consolidation begin in the digital health sector.

Claus Jensen, PhD, chief digital officer and chief technology officer, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York City): Digital health will enable three key care-model shifts in 2021: a shift to a hybrid care model that delivers integrated care and surveillance across inpatient, outpatient and at-home; removing friction and making access to care easier by integrating medical records, points of care, logistics and more; and creating meaningful relationships prior to disease, based on knowledge and guidance.

Jean Mixer, chief digital transformation officer and vice president of strategy, Boston Children's Hospital: I have five predictions:

1. Driving toward Malcolm Gladwell’s aptly named tipping point for key virtual access and care services with COVID-19 as an accelerant

2. Step function increase in consumer engagement and in data-sharing as consumers grapple to maintain health, emotional and financial security in the wake of the current pandemic 

3. Unprecedented market share shifts to innovative care models and therapeutics, which leverage digital to improve access, clinical and cost outcomes and experience, particularly in testing, vaccines and vaccination 

4. Rising awareness of disparities in health and access which can be exacerbated or boldly addressed in digitally enabled models, which extend reach, lower cost and manage unique needs of specific populations 

5. Rising importance of cybersecurity and tech continuity to mitigate local and global threats to security and impact of climate instability

Mohan Nair, senior vice president and chief innovation officer, Cambia Health Solutions (Portland, Ore.): The COVID-19 pandemic and mental health crisis will collide and demand attention. This will enable and force us to face our isolation but recognize our interconnected humanity, our compassion, and our empathy for others.  Digital technologies, like telehealth, digital therapeutics and artificial intelligence/machine learning, are all candidates to catalyze a new world with a common cause.

Muthu Krishnan, PhD, chief digital transformation officer, IKS Health (Burr Ridge, Ill.): 2021 will see a surge in disease-specific digital health solutions. We have seen digital health applications for some specific health needs such as diabetes, pregnancy, etc. The breakthrough for digital health in 2021 will be physicians embracing these tools and technologies to improve care delivery, care outcomes and patient satisfaction.

Nicole Cable, chief experience officer, InnovaCare Health (White Plains, N.Y.): The face of healthcare has changed significantly, and the new existence is upon us. The human experience in healthcare will be impacted by the following:

Healthcare startups will devise programs to enhance health abilities and outcomes by creating medical devices that allow patients to retain their dignity, like Augment Health and others.

Millennials will continue to embrace telehealth and telemedicine, and payers like CMS will expand  coverage.

Seniors will continue to embrace telehealth and telemedicine. However, tech companies will play a critical role in creating tools that impact the complexity of their care and chronic conditions. I see greater partnerships between tech and healthcare to address health equity within this vulnerable population.   

In a post-COVID-19 world, healthcare will be required to embrace technology to impact positive outcomes in the lives of patients and their families.

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