Our final group of thought leaders bring us insights on 2021 as we will continue to struggle to control and eradicate COVID-19. The continued strain on healthcare communities, medical professionals, healthcare staffing, and resource allocation that the pandemic has brought about may not go away for most of next year.
The medical community was keenly aware of the alarming rise in symptoms of burnout in clinician teams prior to the pandemic, now at unchartable levels of stress, compassion fatigue, resource depletion, and exhaustion for many healthcare professionals and administrators. Widespread vaccinations will eventually help reduce new stressors, but that is not enough to repair the damage or reverse pre-existing burdens. As soon as possible, an all hands on deck approach is needed to accomplish several divergent goals with innovations and improvements in health IT to: 1. simplify the reporting and administrative burdens on providers; 2. support organizational efforts to create internal cultures of resilience; and 3. provide excellence in evidence-based, low-cost, easy on-boarding, clinician-facing training programs to strengthen resilience and recovery for individuals working in healthcare and allied professions.
2020 was a challenging year globally and nationally, including for the medical community. This year highlighted the numerous systemic inadequacies and injustices plaguing our nation, particularly for BIPOC communities. In healthcare, this has meant facing the disparities which exist for BIPOC patients. 2020 has stimulated a more robust dialogue around the shortcomings of the healthcare system starting with medical education and residency training. With increased attention being given to this critical issue, I anticipate in 2021 we will see significant changes being made to medical student and residency curriculums to ensure inclusivity, cultural competency training, and teaching of a diverse representation of diseases across all racial and ethnic backgrounds. This will be important for all healthcare providers, not just physicians. This will include re-examining what sources are used to teach and ensuring that these sources are diverse and representative of the spectrum of disease presentations. I also think in the next year, there will be continued growth and expansion of AI as an adjunctive tool in medicine that can help to fill knowledge gaps and improve diagnostic accuracy. It’s important however that as AI algorithms are built that this occurs using diverse data sets which help minimize bias while helping to ensure quality patient care.
The nursing shortage has loomed large over the healthcare industry for years, and 2020 marked a real tipping point for this crisis. The triple whammy of an aging workforce, rising burnout, and a once-in-a-century pandemic drove even more nurses to retire or pivot to work in other fields. Thus, in 2021, we will see a major overhaul of how we train, staff, and schedule nurses to better retain these invaluable healthcare workers. Specifically, healthcare facilities will finally forgo antiquated scheduling methods – like Excel spreadsheets and whiteboards – and opt for comprehensive workforce management solutions. To curb burnout, facilities will enable their nurses to select their own flexible schedules. Further, to avoid forced overtime for full-time staff and promote work-life balance, healthcare leaders will seek out on-demand staffing solutions to maintain compliance and seamlessly fill shifts with qualified nursing professionals. As facilities digitize backend operations, they will be able to leverage their staffing, scheduling, and training data to identify the best nurse for each shift, benefiting the facility, their clinical staff, and those under their care.
Smartphone mental health apps – in the trough of disillusionment?
Many healthcare market predictions will focus on the rise of telehealth, coordinated care, and AI-driven medicine – all of which are indeed growing and important trends. However, I am more inclined to highlight the rising wave of mental health challenges in the United States, particularly given the pandemic. Even before the outbreak, according to the CDC, 1 of every 5 Americans faced a mental illness in any given year. Recent studies predict that number could rise to 1 in 3 by the end of 2021. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been an explosion of mental health-related smartphone apps available on the Apple and Google Play marketplaces with a recent count of over 10,000, and the vast majority of these are largely unevaluated and have shown little evidence of real world effectiveness outside a research setting. The overwhelming majority of these digital-only behavioral health interventions will not provide value. Interventions that incorporate the digital and personal touch of a coach or therapist will be the real winners!
From an integration standpoint, in 2021, I anticipate increased interest in FHIR interoperability and related resources. The focus since March has been the management and mitigation of the COVID-19 virus, and interoperability has proved an integral part of that. Especially since the passage of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT’s (ONC) 21st Century Cures Act and other legislation, organizations will be mandated to have things like FHIR APIs and FHIR resource integration starting next year.
Tracking critical resources
Hospitals and health systems are under unprecedented strain caring for COVID-19 patients and unfortunately, we’ll see this continue into the new year. They are all-hands-on-deck, and tools that can help with resource allocation—from ICU beds to staff – will be critical internally and regionally. I expect that as we come out of this winter holiday surge and as vaccine distribution begins, we’ll see hospital and public health leaders take stock of what worked – and what didn’t – and take steps to ensure future preparedness.
Experts suggest that one year of the pandemic has propelled the healthcare industry to 2030 in terms of innovation and adoption of AI-enabled technology – and this progress will only increase through 2021. The industry is changing rapidly – with virtual care significantly supplementing in-person care and the number of patients in need of care drastically outnumbering available providers. The overwhelming demand is especially true when it comes to serving complex patient populations, like the booming Medicare market and the increasingly high number of people struggling with their mental health. AI-enabled health information technology, like patient engagement and chronic care management tools, will be pivotal in augmenting the capabilities of healthcare workers so they can effectively and efficiently care for these patients wherever they may be – whether in the hospital, at a senior-living facility or in the home.
Providers will adopt AI-enabled care management technology at a mass level throughout 2021 because its ability to improve patient outcomes, reduce health system costs and ultimately save lives has become clear this year. Our patient engagement BOT, as just one example, uses AI to monitor patient’s health in the gaps of care to detect statistical anomalies in voice patterns, which then triggers our care team to triage a clinical intervention in real time. Recently the BOT flagged a potentially suicidal patient to their care coordinator – allowing the patient’s primary care physician to reach out immediately and intervene, which resulted in a life saved. The value that AI-enabled technology has to augment the capacity and capabilities of healthcare workers will be utilized to its full potential in the coming year – because there is no other choice.