Remember the musings of 2019 industry analysts last December, pondering which digital technologies and biomedical and life science advances would make their mark in 2020? Despite all the right indicators and common sense — and even a global pandemic that no one could have predicted — too many of these cost-reducing and life-saving ideas fell victim to the unmovable health-system status quo. It was too comfortable just keeping the time-worn system in place.
In retrospect, on the eve of the new decade, we had the luxury of dipping our toes into the waters of digital and biomedical innovation and daydreaming about what could be. Then Covid-19 tossed us into the deep end of the pool. We now have to not only innovate but apply those innovations urgently. It’s a societal sink or swim.
Our health system has been pushed to adopt technologies and other advancements swiftly so that we can survive — and, hopefully, it’s been a forceful shove out of complacency. Digital health is driving many of these changes, including how we access medical providers and how care can be delivered, but that’s not all.
We are seeing the rapid proliferation of remote diagnostic tests and the long-overdue move to give patients better access to their health information in order to unleash innovation while reducing the burden on payers and providers. And while edgy innovators now leverage many of these environmental shifts to raise capital and gain media attention, the real game-changers will be familiar power names, ready to flex their muscles in order to enter the nation’s three-trillion-dollar health sector.
As we look ahead to a new year yet again, the world looks different — but the potential for innovation to accelerate human health is higher than ever. The events of the coming year will be marked by collaborations and consolidations taking place at a frantic pace. The post-Covid-19 economy is already being sketched out on the whiteboards of payers, product innovators, policymakers, and provider systems as they begin to imagine new economic models.
Covid-19 is an unexpected force for societal change. Here are 10 health advances the pandemic will continue to drive forward in 2021:
1. Telehealth: The possibility of seeing your physician on-screen existed for years, but Covid forced everyone to confront regulatory, economic, and urgent-care realities. The FDA and state regulators lowered the bar on a range of compliance hurdles, and fee-for-service physicians realized that virtual patient visits were better than no visits — and no reimbursement. Telehealth is now here to stay. In a post-Covid-19 economy, telehealth will become an increasingly convenient option for most, albeit not the go-to-always approach.
2. Remote Monitoring and Wearables: Turn over that hospital mattress! Consumer electronic models will become embedded in the health system as cutting-edge medical centers untether their patients from wired monitors and blinking bedside equipment. Instead, digital systems built as part of beds, furniture, and convenient medical wearables make hospitals stays more customer-friendly and deliver patient information straight to providers’ smartphones and central monitoring stations.
3. Artificial Intelligence (AI): Physicians are beginning to recognize that AI doesn’t replace learned medical masters, but that it’s a pattern recognition tool for leading-edge minds to exploit. Knowledge and case experience remain the marks of a great physician. They will increase their capabilities (and their psychological comfort) by comparing their current cases against hundreds or thousands of other case records to reveal a range of clinical options. Beyond predictive ability, AI will elevate the gifted medical practitioner to another level of performance. While great doctors may not always have a great bedside manner, they will need to demonstrate heightened technical ability.
4. Wellness: Our health system isn’t built around “health” at all. We’ve got a sick-care system that offers diminishing return-on-investment. Wellness is a big win-win-win for households, companies, and governments that ultimately foot the health insurance bill. Employers and payers will find that encouraging self-care and chronic-illness intervention is a smarter business model and helping consumers understand that they have the most skin-in-the-game, and can extend their years into world adventures that take them away and keep them outside doctors’ waiting rooms.
5. Decentralized Clinical Trials: Once Covid-19 hit; traditional clinical trial models hit the brakes. With many trials so long delayed, there is a need for a catch-up. Pipelines and new indications go idle without data. Clinical research organizations recognize that they must reinvent themselves or they’ll be out of business.Operation Warp Speed put the pedal to the metal for Covid-19 vaccines and proved that systems developed now can be applied to other high-priority, clinical urgencies. The power of AI to source diverse trial participants, process information for accurate dosing, reach out to diverse communities, and analyze data for safety and efficacy faster will all be part of decentralizing to democratize clinical trials.
6. Cell and Gene Therapy (C>): Ever since Watson and Crick described the double-helix, we have been eager to apply genetic understanding to improve human health. Finally, the time is upon us. Early C> entries have been pioneers on multiple fronts. They forged a path for development and regulatory approaches and soothed payer and provider anxieties around safety and cost. Now, the latest innovations have demonstrated C> science’s vast, practical potential to arrest rare diseases and sustain people’s lives. Companies in the sector are perfecting the category’s supply chain. The questions now have shifted from “is it possible” to “how do we apply the category to more critical patient needs?”
7. Power Tech Players: Health-tech entrepreneurs will fire up the imagination of innovation and become the development laboratories of advances for game changers with familiar names. Google has both the ability and credibility to smash obstacles to interoperability and enable virtual reality to stretch the imagination and ability of physicians. Amazon will squeeze costly waste from an overextended drug supply chain. Apple will demonstrate tech’s clinical value through the creation of frontline diagnostic assessment tools. Microsoft will change the drug-development workflow and monitoring. These behemoths know how to integrate innovation, address mass-market consumer expectations, and bring their reputation of success to the health-system table. Big tech has the scale, credibility, and power to do it — you won’t say no to systems driven by Google and Microsoft. When innovators and big tech team up with the power biopharma players, change will occur in a blink.
8. Primary and Dental Care: Non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart and respiratory illness, and mental health are slow-burn killers. While Covid-19 delayed check-in visits to doctors and dentists, standard diagnostic blood tests, vaccination schedules, and primary care will once again be accessible, and people will flood back to the physician and dental offices. However, there will be big changes! If you can order a pizza with an app, why not schedule a medical visit? If you can translate your cat’s meows with the help of an app, why not have access to your medical records in plain English? Consumers know what’s possible, and will seek out caregivers that respect them as customers.
9. Supply Chain: Sourcing components for medicines has been a “behind-the-scenes” conversation. No longer! Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing, storage, and shipment placed the supply chain at the heart of corporate performance. More and more, FDA approvals are delayed or side-lined due to manufacturing logistics — not efficacy or safety data. Supply chain management is no longer a back-room production issue: it’s dollars made, and lives sustained. Supply chain will be a news driver in 2021 and beyond. Judge a company by its pipeline and ability to make things happen from lab to bedside.
10. Death Sentence Diseases: Once, AIDS and chronic myeloid leukemia were death sentences. And as we all know, they’re now chronic conditions. The biopharma sector continues to attack frightening illnesses such as ALS, brain cancer, cystic fibrosis, and pancreatic cancer. Research — often initiated by patient groups and eager-to-help clinical experts as was the case with the AIDS community — are extending lives and, by adding time to the people’s journeys, inviting biopharmaceutical innovators into these categories as partners. Why is this happening now? These recent successes are built on the foundation of a willingness to try something new and not aimlessly follow previous attempts. Imagination, innovation, and leadership are taking us to a better place.
COVID-19 serves an unexpected purpose by rebooting global thinking about medical systems, technological use and health economics. The biggest challenge we face as we cut through the cobwebs of processes and parameters set decades ago is to overcome our “this is the way we do things” comfort levels. The call-to-action from the late President John F. Kennedy must now become a life-science rallying cry: “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”