The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the face of nearly every part of our global society. In the face of tragedy and challenge, people and businesses have found new ways to persevere, adapt, and move forward.

With the healthcare industry finding itself squarely in the middle of the storm during the pandemic, it only makes sense that this sector has seen some of the most significant resulting changes. Certainly, digital transformation is not a new concept for the healthcare community, but by most accounts its progress in achieving the intended ‘transformation’ would be considered glacially slow by nearly any measure.

This is particularly concerning when we consider that effective digital transformation is not just a means of improving efficiency, customer experience or profits. Rather, in this environment it can directly improve patient outcomes and reduce loss of life.

In this sense, the pandemic has been a critical accelerator that has now placed digital transformation front-and-center. According to research by Dell Technologies, 84 percent of healthcare executives have relied on data and intelligent technologies for new insights during the pandemic.

In this article, we’ll consider various ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in the healthcare industry and the five key takeaways that can help us build a better future.

 

1. Accelerating Innovation

In August 2020, Mohanbir Sawhney of the Kellogg School of Management wrote: “From healthcare’s increase in telemedicine to retail’s expanded focus on the omnichannel experience, companies are redesigning their customer experience. While these changes were initiated due to the pandemic, many of the forced innovations will likely become permanent. As a result, the past six months have probably seen more customer experience innovation than the past six years.”

Many trends in digital transformation for healthcare have become mainstream, if not widespread, due to the pandemic. For example, with many physicians and patients practicing social distancing and avoiding in-person visits to hospitals and health clinics, the use of telehealth for remote doctor’s visits and patient care delivery is soaring. According to the U.S. CDC, 95 percent of health centers have used telehealth during the pandemic—compared with just 43 percent who said they were even capable of providing telehealth in 2019.

Since telehealth increases the ability to serve more patients in less time, it also creates a new bottleneck: limitations in how quickly providers can sort through patient information, clinical tests and other inputs and make treatment decisions. This is where artificial intelligence has also demonstrated enormous impact.

Patients interact with AI already in many low-risk contexts, such as communicating with online bots who use natural language to guide patients through self-assessment processes and determine which kind of provider is best-suited to their needs. But AI goes far beyond that initial step, and can directly transform how treatment is selected and delivered. In August 2020, for example, Swedish researchers unveiled a new AI algorithm that can diagnose breast cancer with the same accuracy as human radiologists.

These two trends alone represent a sea change in healthcare delivery, since they enable a far greater range of providers to reach a much wider patient population faster and with greater diagnostic throughput than ever before. The potential of these innovations to massively improve outcomes for underserved or rural populations alone is staggering.

 

2. Collaboration among Competitors

Among many exceptional changes driven by the pandemic, one of the most transformative has been to drive competitors in the healthcare landscape to collaborate together while still achieving breakthrough innovations.

The VentilatorChallengeUK consortium in the United Kingdom, for example, brought together members of the automotive, aerospace, and healthcare sectors to manufacture decades’ worth of ventilators in just a few weeks.

Meanwhile, in the United States, longtime rivals Merck and Johnson & Johnson joined forces to help speed up the deployment of the J&J vaccine. The collaboration is projected to outpace the goal of 100 million J&J doses by the end of June 2021.

Similarly, health systems themselves are collaborating in ways previously unheard of. In the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, a consortium of three competing hospital/health systems joined forces with eight other partners to create Operation Vaccinate the Peninsula to ensure maximum impact and collaborative efficiency in delivering life-saving COVID-19 vaccines across the region they serve.

While some of these partnerships are certainly tied specifically to the pandemic, the reality is that all of them hinge upon rapid and comprehensive changes in how information is shared and managed between the partners. Put another way, digital transformation is coming along as a permanent byproduct of the business decisions being made in light of the pandemic’s demands.

 

3. Meeting Today’s Needs, Solving Tomorrow’s Problems

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many healthcare leaders to concentrate on the “now” rather than the “sometime in the future.” In the wake of the pandemic, healthcare organizations have increasingly discarded their cautious, wait-and-see approach, choosing to accelerate the rollout of new features and services.

For example, healthcare providers such as Penn Medicine and UCHealth have rapidly developed and deployed a uniquely pandemic-focused digital solution: chatbots to support patients with COVID-related concerns. These AI assistants have not only made the first layer of patient screening faster and more efficient, but also freed up on-site professionals to tend to the most pressing issues.

At the same time, a major investment just one year before the pandemic looks certain to pay off: Aetna, Anthem, Health Care Service Corporation, PNC Bank and IBM agreed to form a blockchain consortium in early 2019 with the express purpose of allowing the blockchain network to enable healthcare companies to build, share and deploy solutions that drive digital transformation in the industry and improve patient outcomes.

 

4. Exploring New Avenues

In the past year, traditional business goals have been disrupted to their core. These changes have freed companies from their legacy models, forced them to think outside the box, and opened up new possibilities. Many healthcare organizations will take advantage of these shifts and upheavals to adopt novel digital technologies. Just a few of these new avenues in healthcare include:

  • Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) that help create, organize and store patient data more flexibly and efficiently. These hold the promise of extending health information exchange (HIE) beyond the traditional data formats found in legacy EMR/EHR systems.
  • Blockchain, an immutable, distributed ledger that can authenticate patient data and track user access (and which we just referenced in our discussion above).
  • Extended Reality (XR), including augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR). Use cases include medical training and education (e.g., for surgeons to practice effectively during the simulation of different cases), as well as in physical rehabilitation and therapeutics.
  • Wearable Tech, led by the groundbreaking innovations by companies like Apple. Pre-pandemic, the idea of using a wrist watch to assess a person’s blood oxygen levels seemed far fetched at best. Now, it’s a standard feature that millions of people used to self-monitor a key indicator in COVID-19 cases.

 

5. Focusing on Data Transparency

Digital transformations in healthcare are doomed to failure if they aren’t backed up by the transparent handling of data to achieve their intended goals. Too many organizations struggle to break down data “silos” that prevent different teams and departments from accessing the information they need. In fact, it’s been well-documented that two hospitals using the exact same brand of EHR/EMR system are almost never able to share data due to the proprietary configuration and customization changes that are made on top of the standardized code base for each application.

In these strange times when competitors are suddenly collaborating, transparent data becomes all the more important and it has begun to drive a cry for getting past these long standing operational barriers. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for bureaucratic offices to revolutionize their approach toward data governance, including digitizing their legacy data, unifying their workflows, and laying down IT infrastructure for rapid growth.

Already, this has begun to happen thanks to a combination of public and provider pressure, and the commitment by major EHR/EMR vendors to deliver more robust APIs for their platforms as a result of the pandemic.

 

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered our society. To meet these changes and challenges head-on, many healthcare organizations are enacting digital transformation initiatives, or accelerating the ones they already had underway. As former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was known for saying, “Never waste a good crisis.” In this case, the changes forced by the pandemic have the potential to make dramatic and lasting impacts on the future of healthcare delivery worldwide, leading to better patient outcomes and healthier populations.

For more information on digital transformation in the healthcare industry, and to learn about our past and upcoming events, visit the DigXchange website.

 

Image credits: Photo by Chanikarn on Rawpixel