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Shaping the Future of Healthcare in 2021

Healthcare faces three immediate priorities in 2021. Learn what they are, the steps for achieving them and the technology tools that can help.

January 11, 2021 10 minute read

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a year since the world first learned of COVID-19 and ten months since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a global pandemic. To say 2020 has been challenging would be an understatement. The pandemic has brought countless, unprecedented obstacles across all industries, forcing many organizations to rapidly transform to maintain business continuity

While we’ve all been impacted in one way or another — from quarantining to virtual learning and remote working — healthcare systems were dealt arguably the greatest challenge of all: continuing to provide excellent care to a massive influx of patients while controlling the spread of the virus. 

It’s been far from easy, to say the least, and there’s no doubt in my mind that healthcare is forever changed. This year has revealed we still have a lot of work left to do to better prepare healthcare systems in case of another pandemic. It’s also shown that we desperately need to improve the clinician and patient experience. 

So, what does the future of healthcare look like? And how do we get there? 

Immediate priorities for healthcare in 2021

  • Redouble learning health system efforts
  • Improve clinician burnout
  • Develop your patient engagement platform

Redouble learning health system efforts

Healthcare systems must look to leverage their data more effectively to gain new insights. As hospitals increase patient monitoring technology and adopt personalized medicine practices, they’re adding valuable sources of rich data. They must also build a virtuous data cycle that leverages every source of available clinical data to drive more informed decision making at the point of care. The data must be integrated with existing systems, stored properly, and analyzed effectively to deliver new insights to the right person at the right time in the right way. We must engage patients with their own data, enabling them to be a full partner in managing their health to improve their desired outcomes and achieve their healthcare goals.

A virtuous data cycle allows healthcare systems to leverage clinical data sources to derive new insights and impact point of care.
A virtuous data cycle allows healthcare systems to leverage clinical data sources to derive new insights and impact point of care.

Improve clinician burnout

A worsening shortage of primary care physicians and many other specialties is impacting the healthcare industry. As healthcare workers, on all levels, continue to mobilize to aid high-need areas combating the pandemic it’s become even more clear that we need to increase the number of clinicians now and in the future. To do so, healthcare systems must overcome burnout that accelerated throughout the pandemic, driving clinicians to leave the workforce prematurely.

It’s critical for healthcare systems to ensure they’re taking care of those who take care of patients. This means excelling in key areas like social support, work-life integration, flexibility, organizational culture and values, and efficiency — resources to not only maintain but grow their workforce. When these areas are addressed properly, clinicians are more likely to have a fulfilling job experience, be engaged at work and find joy in what they do. When these areas are not done well, healthcare systems directly worsen clinician burnout, disengagement, depression and cynicism. 

The clinician engagement continuum is based on seven key factors: workload and job demands, efficiency and resources, organizational culture and values, social support, work-life integration, control and flexibility, and meaning in work.
Healthcare systems should view clinician engagement as a continuum. Depending on how well these key engagement areas are addressed directly relates to the healthcare system's degree of clinician burnout.

Healthcare systems should pay special attention to the workflow efficiency component as one of the greatest impacts on clinicians having a positive experience at work. Efficiency refers to how seamlessly and easily technology enables clinicians or healthcare workers to do their job. For example, if it takes minutes to login to the electronic health record (EHR), it not only wastes valuable time but it’s frustrating for the clinician. By addressing crumbling infrastructure and paying down technical debt, healthcare systems can build a foundation for a positive clinician experience

Develop your patient engagement platform

The most successful brands in the world offer an omnichannel experience for their customers to interact. It’s common for a retailer or restaurant to have a website, mobile app and a physical location — all tightly integrated together — to provide a plethora of services to their customers. Patients now expect the same type of experience from their healthcare system. 

When developing a patient experience platform, healthcare systems should adopt an omnichannel approach to meet patients where they're currently engaged and where they want to be engaged.

By developing a patient experience platform, healthcare systems can begin to follow patients across the continuum of care. “Wayfinding” should help patients navigate through complicated hospital designs as well as throughout their healthcare journey. The ability to self-schedule appointments online or launch a telehealth visit directly from a single platform provides additional convenience. Chatbots and smart alerts can help keep patients on track with their care or everyday choices by sending auto-generated, personalized messages as gentle reminders. Leveraging usage data can help to improve service design and the mobile applications themselves in a nimble and agile way. These are just a few examples of how a patient experience platform can help healthcare systems engage patients in new and innovative ways

Steps for achieving smarter, higher-quality healthcare

To achieve the three priorities discussed above, healthcare systems must assess what’s working and what’s not, reframe or restart key services, and modernize their processes, technology and physical environments.

Assess

You can’t create a new roadmap or navigate to your destination without knowing your starting point. Healthcare systems must assess where they are today to determine the appropriate path for achieving their end goals. Start by understanding what your patients, clinicians and workforce expect from your organization. These expectations have changed over time due to technology advancements in consumer experiences and, most definitely, throughout the pandemic. Health systems must engage all stakeholder groups to learn how to best meet their expectations and needs. 

Next, gather insights from within your organization, outside your organization and across industries. Take a closer look at what worked and what didn’t work for your organization during the pandemic, as well as lessons learned from other healthcare systems. Each hospital faced its own unique set of challenges, so make sure to incorporate that information into your future planning. But don’t stop at healthcare. Innovations and pitfalls across other industries may also be applicable to healthcare and influence your roadmap. 

Lastly, continue evaluating new and emerging technologies and adopting those that make most sense for your organization. Use every opportunity — big or small — to promote change, innovation and improvement. 

Leveraging a partner, like WWT, can help healthcare systems not only identify these areas of opportunity but provide broader insights across healthcare and other industries to guide informed decisions.

Reframe 

As the pandemic nears an end and healthcare systems look to resume normal operations, they’ll need to reframe their organizational goals and properly align technologies. Consider asking:

  • What should return to prior states versus what should change going forward?
  • What initiatives placed on hold should resume and/or accelerate?
  • Who should return to in-person work versus remain remote?
  • Are there other groups, processes or services that could or should be remote?
  • Which organizations are leading in remote versus in-person workforces?

Modernize

After completing the foundational work necessary for digital transformation, healthcare systems can begin modernizing processes, technology and physical environments. 

Processes

From a process perspective, healthcare systems must address their revenue cycles, supply chain management, and research and clinical trials. 

Even simple coding and billing errors often lead to denied claims, and when more than 60 percent of denials aren’t even appealed, these small mistakes can cause significant revenue loss. Healthcare systems must seek out advanced solutions to improve the automation, speed and accuracy of the steps that contribute to successful claims and appeals. 

Supply chain processes must be modernized to ensure a truly global approach that includes multiple sources for critical materials. During the pandemic, many U.S. hospitals struggled to obtain the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to keep their staff safe and the critical technology infrastructure components to keep pace with changing demands due to supply chain shortages. Healthcare systems must develop a diversified network of supply chain vendors to build resiliency and prevent shortages in the future.

Healthcare systems must also reevaluate their approach to research and clinical trials. Many came to an abrupt halt during the pandemic. Finding ways to safely adapt clinical trials during times of uncertainty and accelerate research is critical for patients relying on new discoveries as well as the overall advancement of the medical field. Transforming these processes by leveraging new technologies can also begin to deliver better results and experiences than ever before.  

Technology

From a technology perspective, healthcare systems need to modernize aging, legacy infrastructure, collaboration tools, and research and clinical trials. As discussed earlier, crumbling infrastructure and technical debt are key catalysts of clinician burnout and negative employee and patient experiences. Modernizing your infrastructure and paying down technical debt improves clinician and patient experience and potentially improves your bottom line if you invest in the right technology. A key component of improving the clinician experience is adopting the right collaboration tools. Many hospitals rapidly implemented remote work for eligible employees when the pandemic hit. Now it’s time to optimize and add the right collaboration tools to foster greater productivity and improve performance. 

Physical environments

Finally, healthcare systems need to adapt their physical environments to reduce contamination and infection spread to prepare for a next pandemic. For example, after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the U.S. adapted hospital designs and processes to be better equipped for any future mass trauma casualties. The same type of adaptation must now be considered for future pandemics. 

Technology tools for transformational success

While there are many tools available in the market and each organization will have its own unique requirements and needs, these are the top technologies I believe healthcare systems must explore to push the industry forward in 2021:

  • Cybersecurity and privacy: Protecting patient data will always remain a top priority for healthcare. Ensure your organization is using the best tools to prevent and combat cyberattacks.
  • Cloud: Gain agility, flexibility and the ability to scale as needed today and in the future.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML)/deep learning (DL): These technologies have earned a lot of hype — but for good reason. Don’t ignore the tremendous value that AI/ML/DL can provide when integrated into daily workflows.
  • Next-generation networks: There are many new advancements happening in this area — Wi-Fi 6, 5G, near-field communication, edge computing, etc. Healthcare systems must be willing and ready to embrace change and new network capabilities.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): Many hospitals incorporated IoT for remote inpatient monitoring during the pandemic to safely monitor COVID-19 patients. Some have begun to adopt them for remotely monitoring patients at home. Healthcare systems must continue to look for ways to expand IoT tools and capabilities into other areas to begin to care for patients holistically, especially in between in-person or telehealth visits.
  • Touchless technologies: After the COVID-19 pandemic, every healthcare system should be looking for ways to decrease contact and spread of infection within their hospitals through touchless technology. Examples include employee face detection when clocking in to work or voice-driven automation.

Ready to start tackling these 2021 priorities to ensure your organization remains on the cutting edge of healthcare? Explore WWT's capabilities and connect with our healthcare experts today. 

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