COVID-19 has taken a staggering toll in the United States and around the world.
While the death toll continues to climb, deferred or canceled treatments, the physical and behavioral health impact of sheltering in place, and the effects stemming from an economic downturn will add additional layers of hardship.
The more urgent needs for digital health solutions and new employee benefits have driven the pace of innovation over the course of the pandemic. But the future of healthcare hasn’t been dramatically altered by COVID-19. Although reform and innovation have accelerated, the trajectory remains the same.
That was the consensus at cross-industry mega conference, HLTH, which took its event virtual this year. When it was established three years ago, HLTH set out to drive innovation throughout the healthcare ecosystem by bringing payers, providers, employers, academia, investors, startups, pharma, and policymakers together discuss the future of health. With COVID-19 as a backdrop, the conversations focused on the sustainability of the current healthcare system, the viability of alternative payment models and democratizing digital care solutions.
Here are our three most important insights from this year’s conference:
Long-term public/private partnerships are on the horizon.
COVID-19 vaccine distribution is a primary example where the government and the private sector will need to come together to make the process successful. The efficient use of data—which will need to be accessed and shared by public and private stakeholders—will be crucial in building the public’s trust for the resolution of this pandemic and any future health crises.
This type of partnership is also vital to the development and expansion of Medicare Advantage (MA) programs that rely on local dissemination and are transitioning to value-based care models. Health insurers have experienced growth in that market due to a combination of regulatory changes by the Trump administration that allow plans to cover more supplemental benefits, and from the 10,000 baby boomers reaching Medicare eligibility age every day.
MA, which allows private health plans to contract with the federal government, has been effective at managing costs, quality of care, and patient experience. It’s channeled that efficiency into in new benefits, like meal deliveries and transportation. Holistic, localized benefits delivery provided through the private insurance market in concert with the government could serve as an example of how to curb costs related to employer-sponsored insurance.
COVID-19 created unique momentum for digital innovation.
While the technology existed, the exponential uptake of digitally enabled care was prompted by the urgent need to meet patients where they were. The center of care shifted to the home with the use of telemedicine and the regulatory enablement of virtual care. Recent innovation reoriented the healthcare system to focus on individual healthcare needs because providers had to deliver care in a less decentralized way.
Close to 60 million Americans live in counties with low physical access to care. Telehealth has the potential to combat inadequate access to care for up to an additional 50 million Americans, although there are still about 21 million people without broadband access.
The acceleration toward telehealth adoption in particular happened at the same time companies created a digital presence to remain connected during the pandemic, pushing their information into the cloud. For providers, that meant facilitating the integration of electronic health data to support clinical decision making. Moving forward, organizations will have to decide together that they are going to make data-sharing a universal standard in order for technology and innovation to start being absorbed into the healthcare ecosystem.
The pandemic has exaggerated overwhelming disparities in health, namely access to and the ability to pay for care.
Poor health outcomes are associated with physical and behavioral health status, unmet social needs (think: food insecurity), racial inequality, and access to timely care. Individuals with chronic conditions, the immunocompromised, and the elderly comprise most COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. People who are more likely to develop significant COVID-19 symptoms are nearly twice as likely to have a behavioral health condition. COVID-19 deaths are 2.4 times higher (per 100,000) in areas of high unemployment compared to areas with low unemployment. Health risks can be influenced by changing lifestyles and behaviors. That starts with connecting benefits to geographic location, relying on data frameworks that share information between local institutions and providers.