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In This Article

For healthcare systems, 2021 proved to be another challenging year due to a pandemic that seems to have no true end in sight. From transforming stopgap telemedicine solutions into scalable, integrated care delivery models to managing supply chain and healthcare worker labor shortages -- healthcare leaders faced some significant challenges. 

As we approach 2022, pandemic-related drivers will continue to shape the business of healthcare in ways that no one would have predicted prior to "coronavirus" becoming Google's most-searched word in 2020.

What does 2022 hold?

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Consumerism and healthcare disruptors

Healthcare disruptors are moving in quickly to capitalize on growing demands for a better healthcare experience by consumers. These are nontraditional entrants to the healthcare space like big tech and big box retailers. Patients are exercising their choice of where, when and how they want to receive care and are demanding better digital tools from their healthcare providers. Clunky EHR portals, lack of self-service tools, long wait times for appointments and limited virtual care options are some of the reasons that consumers are embracing alternative healthcare delivery models that these disruptors provide. 

Unlike healthcare systems, these disruptors are equipped to pivot and innovate to stay competitive in rapidly changing environments. Retail pharmacies, for example, are transforming their business models to grab a piece of the disrupter pie as well as to stay relevant as more patients abandon brick-and-mortar for the convenience of digital and mail order pharmacies. CVS recently announced plans to close 900 stores and double down on developing primary care centers within their existing stores and Walgreens made a $5.2 billion investment in VillageMD to accelerate the opening of 600 primary care clinics at Walgreens locations by 2025. 

Big box retailers like Walmart are doubling down efforts to provide affordable, patient-centric care with recent strategic moves like their acquisition of telehealth company MeMD and plans to grow their multi-specialty care clinics. Best Buy spent nearly $400 million to acquire remote patient monitoring company Current Health last month as part of their aggressive strategy to be an industry leader of in-home care delivery. And young digital health companies are quickly evolving their business models to stay competitive with moves like Teledoc's recent announcement offering a virtual-first insurance plan.

With nearly 40% of patients stating that they have no brand loyalty to their healthcare organization, what are health systems doing to avoid being left behind? Many are prioritizing the development of omnichannel patient engagement to deliver a unified, self-service digital experience that feels like a marketplace -- and not a clunky, EHR portal built on 40-year-old code. Others are adding digital options to traditionally telephonic experiences, like call centers, to improve patient satisfaction and decrease referral leakage of high-revenue specialty care. Many organizations are implementing solutions to provide increased financial and administrative transparency as consumers increasingly exercise more choice in where they receive shoppable services.

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Virtual care 3.0

At the beginning of the pandemic, health systems moved very quickly to implement solutions like video-visits, asynchronous apps and symptom checkers to provide remote care to patients. We view these as telehealth building blocks for organizations who plan to mature their virtual care strategy and deliver more care, closer to home.

Many healthcare organizations view remote patient monitoring (RPM) as the next step in their virtual care journey. Many patients either feared or lacked access to in-person care during the height of the pandemic, and the consequences of this exposed how poorly equipped organizations are to keep patients healthy at home -- especially those with chronic conditions. For example, despite decreased ED visits for AMI, we saw a significant increase in deaths due to ischemic and hypertensive disease -- presumably due to a decrease in preventative care for patients with these cardiovascular conditions. With nearly half of Americans having at least one chronic disease, healthcare organizations are expanding virtual care models to improve outcomes for these populations. Combined with CMS's continued expansion of reimbursable RPM services, more than 75% of organizations feel that RPM adoption will be on par or surpass inpatient monitoring in the next five years. 

Additionally, a solid RPM program affords healthcare organizations the opportunity to expand virtual care to acute and post-acute care at home. Necessity is the mother of invention, and during the height of the pandemic, providers demonstrated this by rapidly identifying ways to discharge mid-to-high acuity patients from overflowing emergency departments. Sending patients home with pulse oximeters and temperature protocols was not uncommon during these unprecedented times -- and the positive patient outcomes suggest that this approach might have been long overdue. The pandemic also spurred an increase in the number of hospitals participating in CMS's Acute Hospital Care at Home program in 2021, and as participating organizations continue to report outcomes like decreased readmission rates and increased patient satisfaction, the number of participating hospitals is expected to triple in 2022.  

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Cybersecurity

Healthcare organizations experience a uniquely different set of security challenges compared to other industries because of what's at stake -- the most private and sensitive information about a human being. The devastating sense of vulnerability one could suffer if such personal information is exposed can be irrevocable. U.S. Health and Human Services report 578 breaches this year – each impacting at least 500 people. These breaches cumulatively impacted over 50 million patients.

Healthcare has become a vulnerable target for cyberattacks for several reasons stemming from the pandemic. For example, the rapid increase in the number of connected devices used by healthcare organizations dramatically increases their attack surface. Although they typically don't contain patient data themselves, these medical and IoT devices are extremely vulnerable to cyberthreats and are an easy entry point for attackers to gain access to other network devices. 

Another driver for increased cyberthreats is the increase in remote work in a traditionally brick-and-mortar industry. Allowing physicians and staff to access hospital applications remotely opens up opportunity for attack -- as many of these personal devices are not secure and employees are not typically educated in best practice. Another vulnerability comes from outdated technology within healthcare organizations. Tight budgets, lack of personnel and a culture that has traditionally been resistant to learning new systems put organizations at high risk for cyberattack.

Cybersecurity will be a top priority for healthcare leaders in 2022 as they work to secure their organizations -- both on and off-premises. Nearly one third of health systems plan to implement biometrics, digital forensics or penetration testing within the next 24 months, according to new HIMSS Media research. Investments will also increase in solutions that help gain visibility into devices connected to the network and the data traffic of each device. Additionally, healthcare organizations will continue to expand security expertise through managed services and through upskilling their employees.

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Automation

Healthcare worker shortages -- including physicians and nurses -- have been an issue even before the pandemic. However, since the pandemic began, the U.S. healthcare sector has lost nearly half a million workers (1 in 5 employees). A recent study reported a 3.5x increase in the number of physicians leaving the profession in 2020 as compared to 2019, and a recent survey of nurses revealed that 66 percent are considering leaving nursing.

Combating this decline will undoubtedly require healthcare organizations to reexamine workloads, resources, safety and compensation for employees. But with an estimated 60% of healthcare tasks lending themselves to automation, many health systems are also investing in automation technologies as part of their strategy to alleviate these labor shortages.

A fast-growing area of automation in healthcare is robotic process automation (RPA). Research by Gartner concludes that 50 percent of healthcare providers will invest in RPA by 2023. RPA is being leveraged to automate routine, repetitive tasks to free up precious human resources to work top-of-license. RPA for revenue cycle management is one area where health systems are seeing solid ROI with improved efficiency, decreased costs and increased revenue capture. Another version of process automation that has seen increased adoption in healthcare is virtual assistants that automate and streamline things like triage, prior authorization, appointment scheduling, clinical documentation, care team collaboration and patient communication. 

AI solutions involving AI/ML models are also being adopted as they offer an advantage over their traditional, analytics and clinical decision-making predecessors. They provide unmatched accuracy and speed to insight -- as well as an ability to reveal previously hidden insights that are present in large volumes of structured and unstructured data. Clinical areas where AI/ML have gained traction include radiology imaging, predictive risk identification and remote monitoring. Operational use cases for machine learning include supply chain optimization, robotics, physical surveillance and throughput automation.

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Cloud 

It's no secret that the healthcare sector has lagged significantly behind other industries in adopting modern cloud strategies. The pandemic highlighted the challenges associated with a predominantly on-premises cloud model as healthcare organizations struggled to meet unprecedented, digital demands. The need to support remote workflows, virtual care, IoT and automation has piqued interest in cloud modernization among an industry that has historically been slow to embrace cloud solutions.

A recent CHIME survey showed that 61% of healthcare IT executives have adopted a hybrid cloud approach, and 10% report that they are "all in" on public cloud. To date, lack of buy-in for hybrid cloud have been based on business cases focused on near-term IT costs, but the massive downstream costs associated with the inability to access data or implement digital solutions for automation, patient engagement and clinician experience during a global pandemic challenge this faulty thinking.

Health systems IT leaders are focusing more and more on long-term business outcomes that are tied to hybrid cloud adoption such as improved speed and agility, increased productivity and increased data security. Cloud solutions lead to a decrease in capital investment as well as labor and maintenance costs and allow in-house IT staff to do higher-value work. The significantly faster deployment of cloud software and decreased adoption time also allows employees to spend less time waiting and more time working. Hybrid cloud strategy also allows organizations to scale resources or contract them and move and manage workloads quickly and securely between private and public clouds.

Organizations understand the importance of cloud in unlocking the power of data as cloud computing increases real-time data collection and improves accessibility to the data. The pandemic accelerated the expansion of stakeholders needing to interact with data inside and outside the organizations' walls to effectively collaborate on clinical and operational efforts.

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Smart hospitals

Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the pandemic showed health systems that they can adopt digital solutions at record breaking speed. Inspired by their newfound agility and motivated by the measurable benefits gained with technology, health systems are radically redefining how they will deliver care in 2022. Smart hospitals adopt modern digital tools into care delivery to meet consumer expectations of an experience on par with retail or hospitality. They also improve clinician and staff experience, while driving financial health through better outcomes, patient retention and operational efficiency gains.

Automation is a key component of smart hospitals and includes contactless check-in, radio-frequency identification (RFID), patient and staff wearables, IoT and robotics. Another important requirement for smart hospitals is to provide a patient-centric, digital experience inside and outside their walls with tools like smart scheduling, digital registration, wayfinding and food delivery bots. Smart rooms are being equipped with personalized iPads, ambient controls, entertainment apps and digital footwalls that allow for dynamic collaboration with care teams.

Fueled by a global pandemic, healthcare organizations will continue to embed technologies long adopted by other industries. What once was considered futuristic is quickly becoming the new normal.

Let's plan for 2022 together.