The coronavirus pandemic expedited the digital transformation underway in healthcare, and patients and providers alike saw benefits to the new tech and virtual solutions. Telehealth appointments, remote patient monitoring services, and amended insurance offerings were able to extend quality care to consumers at a quicker and less-expensive rate. 

But incumbent healthcare institutions should keep an eye out for big tech companies encroaching on their space, as companies including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft try to sway consumers from traditional healthcare players through consumer-first, tech-focused approaches. 

Below, we run through the trends and transformations taking place within the healthcare ecosystem, and outline what traditional health players can do to stay ahead of big tech competitors. 

Key digital trends in the health ecosystem

What is digital health? While the healthcare industry was slow-moving when it came to digital solutions, COVID-19 upended the entire health ecosystem, including insurance, healthcare delivery, and pharmaceutical spaces. Providers were pushed to adopt technology—including telehealth, remote patient monitoring (RPM), and artificial intelligence (AI)—to effectively treat patients from afar.  

As a result, insurers had to address hurdles inhibiting patients and doctors from using telemedicine—like copays and unclear reimbursement pathways. 

 Pre-pandemic, 54% of US adults said they’d use telehealth if it meant saving money, per Amwell.

Healthcare delivery quickly turned to remote care alternatives as hospitals and other healthcare companies were forced to reduce non-emergency visits. Pre-pandemic telehealth adoption rates were hovering around just 11%, but that percentage shot up to 36% by August of 2020, per CivicScience.

Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson took center stage amid the pandemic as leaders in vaccine development. And the rapid adoption of digital health tech will continue to work in their favor as they iterate to combat new strains of the virus—utilizing AI allows pharmaceutical companies to expedite the drug discovery process, and in turn, save money.

Factors fueling the digital transformation of healthcare

  • Lower cost: Pre-pandemic, 54% of US adults said they’d use telehealth if it meant saving money, per Amwell. And with providers looking to see continued benefits from telehealth investments, they’ll likely maintain lower costs moving forward. 
  • Accessibility: Consumer demand for hyper-convenient care has skyrocketed, and nearly one-third of millennials say that going to get a physical isn’t convenient. With millennials making up the largest chunk of the US adult population, providers are increasing convenient offerings like virtual care and online digital health services.
  • Value-based care models: Insurers are driving the shift to valuable-based care (VBC), forcing providers to focus on positive patient outcomes rather than the number of services given. And digital tools, like AI-enabled analytics, are helping to optimize care without compromising costs. 

How the health ecosystem was affected by COVID-19

The “new normal” in healthcare is largely brought on by telehealth and digital technology. More than one third of consumers used telehealth by August of last year. And while the uptick in adoption was mostly caused by stay-at-home orders and social distancing, telehealth will likely remain popular moving forward. 

Additionally, telehealth is a possible solution to the impending provider shortage—the US may see a shortage of 122,000 physicians by 2032 and 670,000 healthcare workers, including nurses, by 2025.

Telehealth has also proved to reduce medical spending and limit unnecessary hospital visits. Because of this, providers will likely continue offering telehealth services as  a means of providing high-quality, remote care long after the pandemic. In addition to benefiting healthcare providers, telehealth will also be a popular option among consumers as adoption continues increasing.

As mentioned in Insider Intelligence’s Digital Health Ecosystem report, demand for virtual care will remain high since 83% of US adults say they’ll want to use telehealth even after the pandemic, per a survey.

Health ecosystem forecast for 2021

While some aspects of the healthcare ecosystem are tough to predict moving forward, one thing is certain as we make our way through 2021: digital healthcare is here to stay. Cash-drained provider organizations will still likely need to rely on telemedicine to hook in revenues from patients who have grown accustomed to telemedicine’s convenience in recent months. 

Another element to keep an eye on this year, is the US department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data sharing mandates. The HHS rolled out mandates to improve interoperability among providers, payers, and health systems—but it put compliance on pause until 2021 to give healthcare entities time to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. 

As a result of these mandates, Insider Intelligence expects interoperability service providers that make it easier to standardize and integrate patient data to see increased attention from hospitals 
Another slow but steady trend making its way in the digital health space, is digital therapeutics (DTx). The pandemic-induced virtual care boom catapulted DTx into the limelight, causing massive spikes in adoption of DTx tools. The global DTx consumer base is projected to grow to 44 million users by 2021—a 288% increase in uptake from pre-pandemic levels, according to UK-based Juniper Research.