Ways Healthcare Will Evolve In 2021

By Paul Brient, chief product officer, athenahealth.

Paul Brient

To say that this has been a challenging year for healthcare providers would be a grave understatement. From the financial hardships that the state shutdowns brought, to the need to change traditional processes to create a COVID-19 safe environment, we have proven that while healthcare may be recession proof, it is not pandemic proof. Although we hope that the majority of these immediate challenges are behind us (or will be behind us once we have a widely distributed vaccine), the healthcare industry has gone through momentous changes in 2020 which will no doubt drive lasting transformation for years to come.

No matter the role healthcare providers play or their specialties, all providers have experienced some degree of change. Some of the biggest changes that we’ve experienced in 2020 —  that will continue to drive trends in the coming year — include shifts toward value-based care (VBC) models, increased focus on whole-person health, and utilization of digital health tools.

Continued Emphasis on VBC and Whole-Person Care

One of the most unexpected observations that providers have had is that those with VBC financial arrangements saw better results than practices with exclusively traditional fee-for-service (FFS) models. In effect, having both VBC and FFS models provides business model diversification and protection against systemic volume declines. This isn’t something that was considered or talked about pre-pandemic.

VBC has been an accelerating force in the healthcare landscape the past few years and has made us rethink patients as consumers. We’ll continue to see practices want to differentiate themselves by moving to VBC models. Additionally, practices will shift away from the problem-focused approach and practice medicine with a much more holistic, patient-focused strategy. There will be advancement toward whole-person care models and new ways to care for patients outside of the encounter and proactively intervene.

The healthcare industry has acknowledged the impact that behavioral, social and human service needs have on an individual’s health — which is causing primary care providers to adopt new offerings around behavioral health. This starts with assessments and will grow into psychosocial support.  Also expect that there will be an increased need for mental health support because of the isolation and reduced social connections to friends and family resulting from the pandemic.

Virtual Care Will Continue To Reign

Lastly, the new ways providers have engaged with their patients (from phone calls, to telemedicine, to two-way texting prior to appointment) have certainly yielded efficiencies and exposed the inefficiencies of the “traditional” patient engagement model. There will be significant innovation as these new techniques and tools are adopted and adapted to a post-pandemic world. At long last, patients will soon be able to engage digitally with the healthcare system in the same way they engage with services they receive in non-healthcare industries.

During March and April, the athenahealth network saw more than a 30X overall increase in the number of telehealth visits conducted daily, and is still seeing a 10X increase over pre-pandemic volumes today. As we look to the post-COVID-19 future, connected health solutions will establish themselves as a bigger and more important element of care delivery than before the crisis.  Across the nation, we have gone from having a small minority of providers and patients that had experienced a telehealth visit to a world where the majority of providers and patients have experienced a virtual visit.

Although 2020 brought many uncertainties, we will, without a doubt, see continued innovation and new models for care delivery in 2021 and beyond. The new solutions we’ve discovered and implemented this year have provided new options to patients and healthcare providers alike. As we head into 2021, I’m confident we’ll continue to set the bar for innovation in the healthcare industry and see amazing new discoveries and technologies along the way.


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