5 Healthcare Digital Innovation Trends for 2021

Becky Lawlor

2020 was a year of disruption. The ways we work, shop, and learn were upended as interactions moved primarily online for safety. But perhaps no industry has been transformed by the embrace of digital technology and services as much as healthcare.

In the half century since video telehealth technology first became available, adoption rates have barely budged. Pre-COVID-19, adoption rates for family medicine were at 0.15% in the U.S., according to Gartner. But COVID-19 has dramatically changed the acceptance of telehealth—breaking barriers to virtual care adoption that had been unmovable for decades.

The Health and Human Services (HHS) reported that in April 2020, nearly half (43.5%) of Medicare primary care visits were via telehealth, compared with 0.1% pre-COVID-19. Popular telehealth platforms have also seen a dramatic increase in demand. Teladoc, for instance, reported that in Q2, total visits rose 203% YOY. Similarly, health systems like NYU Langone Health reported an “unprecedented” 4,435% increase in nonurgent virtual care visits and a 638% increase in virtual urgent care visits. 

While access to vaccines will likely make a return to more in-person health services possible by late 2021, healthcare has been permanently transformed. According to McKinsey, 76% of consumers are highly or moderately likely to continue to use telehealth going forward.

But the adoption of telehealth isn’t the only thing that’s changed since 2020. The pandemic and an embrace of digital technology overall has impacted healthcare in other ways too. Here are five trends emerging from these changes in 2021.

1. More strategic and comprehensive implementation of virtual care

At the start of the pandemic, expanding access to virtual care services was an urgent necessity, and there was little time for comprehensive strategic planning. Telehealth solutions deployed were largely use-case specific—reflecting not only the need to ramp up access quickly, but also the marketplace. 

Given that telehealth adoption is here to stay, healthcare systems will be looking to take a more long-term and holistic approach. This will require moving away from use-case solutions to building a platform-type solution for general virtual care services. According to Gartner, “an array of digital products and services can be supported to form a connected care pathway that reflects highly personalized patient use cases” through the implementation of hardware and software that are agnostic and interoperable.

To achieve this goal in 2021 and beyond, healthcare systems will need vendors who can partner together to provide a digital services platform that will underpin their entire virtual care offering.

2. Expansion of digital tools beyond telehealth

The uptick in telehealth has bled into other areas of healthcare—pushing more digital innovation and services, such as patient intake and registration, patient-facing apps, and remote patient monitoring (RPM).

For providers, having tools like a digital patient registration system yields numerous benefits. It not only eliminates the need to manually transfer patient data from clipboards into their EHR, but can reduce mistakes, save time, reduce phone calls, and help reduce no-shows through automatic appointment reminders. Additionally, patients can easily pay co-pays or past due balances within the system, which can increase collection rates.

“Digital registration systems also play to patient satisfaction,” says Dr. Keith Nelson, Director of Healthcare Strategy at Connection. “Before patients go in for their first visit, providers can send a link to a patient’s phone or computer enabling them to fill-in all of their information online. They don’t have to sit in a waiting room, which cuts down on the total time they spend in the office or facility.”

Patient-facing mobile apps will also continue to grow and increase in functionality in 2021. “Most hospitals have an app, but they are usually limited in their functionality,” says Nelson. “Instead of just being able to use them for things like medication refills, scheduling appointments or making a payment, there are new features that hospitals can add to improve the patient experience and offload staff responsibilities. For instance, instead of dietary staff having to come around and get patient orders, patients can directly place their orders through the app. An enhanced app can also enable a patient to message doctors, access customized education, and even use wayfinding inside hospitals.”

3. Focus on infection control solutions for technology

While healthcare-associated infections have always been a major concern, especially in hospitals where a significant portion of infections occur, COVID-19 has pushed worries of infection spread to new levels.  Consequently, healthcare facilities across the board are hyper-focused on preventing infections from occurring.

With technology being more heavily used than before in the healthcare environment, it’s critical the equipment be sanitized to avoid the spread of infection. However, determining which hardware is able to withstand the abrasive disinfectants used in clinical settings is necessary to avoid damaging devices and IT equipment.

“It can take a lot of research to identify which laptops, monitors or tablets, for instance, can be wiped down with specific harsh solvents used as disinfectants,” says Nelson. To help eliminate this tedious and time-consuming task, there is now an online tool that makes it easier to find hardware that is infection-control ready. For example, one can search by equipment type (laptops, keyboards, scanners, etc.) for antimicrobial coating or wipe-down capabilities as well as for features such as RFID technology for user ID.

“From monitors and laptops, to desktops and power strips and other IT equipment, it’s all aggregated into a search page to make it easier to find the right solution for each type of technology equipment,” says Nelson.

4.  Increase in IOMT devices will drive better asset management

The significant growth of the Internet of medical things (IoMT) has led to a need to manage these devices throughout the healthcare organization. Innovative partnerships and solutions from companies like Kontakt.io and Cisco Merakimake this simpler by enabling seamless location and sensor data flow from Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags to wireless access points to apps.

These technology partnerships make it easier for healthcare systems to roll out, manage, and maintain IoMT solutions with limited additional capital expense. In addition, the systems can be expanded to enable the tracking of patients, staff, and essential medical equipment. And because technology is based on BLE, it’s a low-cost solution that gives administrators a vitally needed real-time view of operations and assets.

5. Return to work, but differently

Eventually, doctors will return to providing more in-person care, and patients will begin coming back for more elective care services. But the lessons from COVID-19 will remain.

As normal seasonal viruses, such as the flu, will continue to visit us in the future, many of the same tools that have been effective with COVID-19 can continue to help. State-of-the-art temperature scanning that uses thermographic cameras with AI and IoT-based systems and sensors can be integrated seamlessly with a healthcare practice’s infrastructure to help monitor individuals or groups entering healthcare facilities. And next-generation mobile identity technology can be implemented to provide touchless entry in areas such as at doors, parking lots, and turnstiles to further reduce contact points for contamination.

Finally, continuous location tracing (CLT) technology, which allows healthcare providers to direct a path for an individual through their facility, alongside alerts and information sharing apps, can help aid in reducing infection spread. Employees can be alerted of contaminated areas and violations of social distancing—and all information is anonymized to protect employee privacy.

Bringing It All Together

As we move into 2021 and beyond, digital innovation and transformation will continue to persist and increase across healthcare. As a result, healthcare systems need a comprehensive strategy for digital services like telehealth, IoMT asset management, and patient-facing technologies like a digital patient registration solution. Successful implementation of these digital services and other innovations will require a technology partner who can plan and implement digital transformation goals. The best partner will be one that can provide end-to-end assistance—including hardware, software, and platform support.

Becky Lawlor has been covering the convergence of business and technology for over a decade. Her writing focuses on emerging trends in big data, IoT, AI, mobility, cyber security, cloud computing, and more. She especially enjoys examining how these technologies are impacting critical business and public sectors such as healthcare, education, government, and retail. You can find more of her writing and insights on Twitter @lawlor_becky.