8 Healthcare Trends on the 2021 Horizon

By Maria Perrin, Chief Growth Officer, HMS
Twitter: @HMSHealthcare

At the close of each year, we take a look back to look forward — reflecting on the events of the past 12 months and anticipating how they might shape the year ahead.

Of course, as we hit publish on our 2020 forecast, little did anyone know a novel coronavirus was emerging that would soon become the greatest health and economic crisis of our generation — and that it would still be the top global concern come year end.

Heading into 2021, still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new presidential administration taking office, there is a lot to discuss. Here are some of the key trends we expect to come into play through the new year and beyond, as healthcare undergoes a significant transformation.

1. Telehealth: A Renewed & Refocused Trajectory
For years, telehealth has been making its way into the healthcare trends, with advocates touting its potential to expand access to care and improve clinical efficiency. What’s different about this year, of course, is the fact that telehealth has officially arrived — or has it? There is plenty of data showing that telehealth use soared during the height of the pandemic; however, evidence of its staying power and impact remains to be seen.

In 2021, we’ll be continuing to follow the telehealth trajectory to understand its implications during and post-pandemic — whether consumer preferences change as in-person care resumes and the broader role of remote patient monitoring in promoting sustained health. We’ll also be looking at the types of services being rendered in a virtual care setting and the factors driving consumer behavior.

2. The Recognition of Mental Health as Part of Overall Health
People are falling ill and dying at unfathomable rates. Schools and workplaces have gone virtual. Unemployment has reached heights not seen since the Great Depression. As mental health and addiction treatment facilities closed, opioid deaths skyrocketed.

The notion that we are edging toward a mental health crisis is no longer just anecdotal. Research published in The Lancet and cited by NPR found that nearly one in five people diagnosed with COVID-19 is also diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Additionally, in a July 2020 KFF Tracking Poll, 53% of U.S. adults reported that the coronavirus had negatively affected their mental health, up from 32% in March.

Integrated care delivery models that address comorbidities in behavioral and physical health conditions will be vital in the coming year, as the prevalence of mental illness increases and the implications of foregone medical care come into focus. In order to facilitate access to behavioral healthcare, however, we must first eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness. We have made gains here in recent years; we hope to see that progress continue into 2021.

3. An Accelerated Shift Toward Data-Driven, Whole-Person Healthcare
The concept of treating the whole person has been discussed at length, but the past year has underscored the need to incorporate behavioral and social determinants of health into standard healthcare practice. Profound racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in the impact of COVID-19, combined with an emerging mental health crisis, has made it impossible to ignore these crucial components of health.

As an industry, we know what we need to do to advance whole-person care — overcome barriers to data sharing and cross-sector collaboration, engage consumers in their health and wellbeing, and advocate for policies that support the viability of integrated care models. Now is the time to act.

4. Countering Vaccine Hesitancy; Restoring Public Trust
The year 2020 has seen the record development and approval of not just one, but three COVID-19 vaccines, with several more vaccine and drug candidates in development. Unfortunately, this breakthrough comes at a time of widespread mistrust — in government, and in science. A September 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that only 51% of U.S. adults would get vaccinated against COVID-19, with 77% of respondents expressing concerns about safety and efficacy.

Countering the deep-seated issue of vaccine hesitancy is a complex, yet critical challenge, with myriad public health implications. Healthcare professionals, government officials, employers and, increasingly, public figures, have a renewed responsibility to curb the spread of misinformation and lead by example. With this, it is our hope and prediction that 2021 marks the beginning of the end of the fake news era.

5. The Evolving Role of the Celebrity Influencer in Healthcare
“You know where to go.” – Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, the voice of the Mayo Clinic’s latest creative campaign.

Celebrity and influencer marketing in healthcare has come to an interesting juncture during the COVID-19 crisis. On the one hand, influencers are being tapped to combat vaccine hesitancy and promote public health measures. On the other, there is growing consensus that influencers — particularly, celebrity influencers — have never been less relatable than during the current health and economic crisis. Adding to the complexity is the resounding message to trust in science, leading the Department of Health and Human Services to forego a $15 million celebrity contract as part of a massive COVID-19 campaign, opting instead for a more “science-based” approach.

The fact is, we live in a world in which celebrities have influence over consumers. And as healthcare becomes increasingly consumer centric, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries would be prudent to harness that influence for the good of public health — certainly within the realm of COVID-19, but also in addressing the many other healthcare issues that will remain prevalent in its aftermath.

6. A Shift in Power — & Healthcare Agenda
Amid a transfer of presidential power, particularly from one party to another, we will inevitably see a shift in healthcare priorities. To some extent, we know what to expect from the Biden Administration. For one, Biden has made his stance on healthcare issues clear, both during his campaign and in the days following his election, when he introduced his three-part plan to combat the pandemic. Biden is also likely to expand or revisit many of the policies enacted under the Obama Administration, including, notably, expanding the Affordable Care Act.

From a population health standpoint, Biden’s commitment to reducing health disparities in communities of color — and addressing the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate in these communities — is particularly promising. While COVID-19 will be the immediate priority, we are eager to see Biden’s larger efforts to reduce the healthcare gap come to pass.

7. A Lifeline in Payment Accuracy & Program Integrity
With tax revenues falling short and more people relying on public aid, states are facing what The Wall Street Journal called the “Biggest Cash Crisis Since the Great Depression.” At the same time, managed care organizations are figuring out how to meet medical loss ratio requirements in light of decreased demand for non-critical healthcare services during the pandemic. And this is all happening as many providers face unprecedented financial and operational challenges.

Moving forward, we will undoubtedly see an evolution of traditional cost containment methods to align with current industry needs and future trends. Payment accuracy and program integrity will serve as lifelines to states and healthcare organizations in recovering dollars lost during the public health crisis, while protecting against fraud, waste and abuse amid the shifting healthcare and economic landscape.

8. Putting the Human Back in Healthcare
When discussing the forthcoming healthcare trends, we thought about those that seem to make the list year and year again — things like artificial intelligence, interoperability, personalized medicine and value-based care.

Certainly, these trends remain ongoing. But what we’ve seen in 2020 is how real innovation happens — and real progress is made.

The need for telehealth during the pandemic, for example, forced significant changes in technology and policy to facilitate its expansion. Now, we must work to ensure that the people who stand to benefit most from telehealth are not being left behind.

In a time of acute crisis, a diversity of stakeholders came together to develop the fastest vaccine ever to make it to market. In the face of this triumph, however, we must acknowledge the racial disparities in healthcare amplified by the pandemic in ensuring equity in the vaccine’s distribution.

Real innovation is driven by human need and purpose. Although there is much to be somber about heading into the new year, we are also optimistic — inspired by what the industry has been able to achieve in the face of adversity and hopeful that the lessons learned during this monumental crisis give way to a more sustainable, equitable and human-centered healthcare future.