Healthcare in a Post-COVID World

Of the previous five global recessions, the most recent economic downturn caused by COVID, was the first to negatively impact health expenditures worldwide. As the international community emerges from the pandemic, the healthcare landscape has been irrevocably altered. To be successful, today’s healthcare leaders must fully understand and embrace the changes that have transpired.

Before COVID, healthcare was being reshaped by a changing global marketplace. Changes that would have taken years, if not decades to achieve, are now being realized in a fraction of the time. According to the National Association of Healthcare Leadership Professional’s advisory board, the pandemic has fundamentally altered two main areas of healthcare: 1) the role of the consumer and 2) the shift in care delivery.

 Role of the Consumer

When it comes to healthcare, today’s consumers are far more educated than generations past. Much to the chagrin of medical professionals, the internet provides access to seemingly unlimited health information with numerous sites even going so far as to provide self-diagnoses.

Google, the world’s largest search engine, fields over 400 million medical questions per day. Armed with such vast amounts of information, the consumer has risen to be the number one driving force of healthcare related change.

This section will review the rise in virtual visits, the impact of consumer-based technology, and the disturbing trend of rising mistrust in the medical community.

Rise in Virtual Visits

Prior to COVID, numerous healthcare organizations attempted to increase the availability of telehealth services to reduce costs and increase access. Pushback from both regulatory agencies and providers, hampered the proliferation of virtual visits. For example, in Japan, it was illegal for first-level providers to diagnose without seeing the patient in person. However, a combination of lockdowns and public fear of contracting COVID caused detractors to ultimately give way and virtual visits across the globe skyrocketed.

In the United States, 82% of providers currently offer virtual visits with 67% stating that they will continue to do so once the pandemic abates. Legislation that prohibited insurance agencies from offering lower reimbursement for virtual visits helped sway providers that remained undecided.

Virtual visits have allowed providers to spend more time with patients as it has streamlined both the check in and check out processes. This increase in time has allowed patients to seek greater clarification in care choices and play a larger role in the care planning process. Coincidentally, as consumers increase their involvement in their care decisions, the obtainment of second opinions has decreased significantly.

Impact of Consumer-Based Technology

Smartphones and their associated applications have transformed health monitoring. Sensors within the smartphone can monitor heart rate, respirations, eye health, ear health, skin conditions, cognitive function, and even mental health.

As demand for health monitoring applications increases, the level of sophistication is rising at a comparable pace. New applications that use the smartphones cameras can monitor body shape and physical transformation. To the fitness enthusiast, weight loss by itself is insufficient. Applications are currently being developed that will allow users to select a desired body type and work to achieve tangible results.

While smartphones contain the necessary sensors to achieve a moderate level of health monitoring, wearable devices are paired with the phone to provide a much greater level of oversight. From watches to wearable arm and headbands, consumer-based technology will continue to shape healthcare now and into the foreseeable future.

Rising Mistrust in the Medical Community

While consumers are the largest driver of healthcare related change, ironically, they are also becoming healthcare’s biggest detractor. In a juxtaposed dichotomy, trust in front line healthcare providers is globally at an all-time high, while trust in the science behind the profession is falling rapidly. The economic principle of the ‘invisible hand’ provides the best explanation for this conundrum.

In the study of economics, the metaphor of the invisible hand, was postulated by Adam Smith to explain the forces that worked behind the scenes to drive supply, demand, prices, wages, and competition. It was as if there was someone exerting control on the entire system. Even if the population wanted a different outcome, the invisible hand was unconstrained.

The pandemic has dramatically increased the trust in front line providers. They are visibly fighting COVID and placing the safety of their patients above their own. Yet the mistrust of those who are pulling the proverbial strings is growing at unprecedented levels. The invisible hand of healthcare is viewed as a self-serving force controlled by those yielding power.

The initial missteps from the medical community only served as proof that the science of medicine is working against the average consumer. As an example, the initial position of the scientific community was that masks were ineffective in thwarting the spread of COVID. When it appeared that there would be enough masks for frontline workers, the medical community retracted its initial position and recommended masks for everyone.

Although the science behind the technology that created the COVID vaccine has been around for decades, the fact that it was the first time employed in this manner, made it “new” and untrustworthy. Misinformation related to the vaccine, compounded by confounding variables, heightened the fear of the vaccine and only furthered the mistrust in the medical community.

Unfounded fears spread by “experts” in the field suggest that the vaccine produces sterility, bell’s palsy, cancer, and even causes the inoculated individual to become magnetic. Unfortunately, competing political ideologies often intentionally support misinformation to gain power regardless of cost. The healthcare leaders of today and tomorrow face an unprecedented questioning of the very science that forms the foundation of medicine.

Shift in Care Delivery

Prior to COVID, healthcare staffing shortages were fast approaching unsustainable levels. At the height of the pandemic, individuals who were close to retirement exited en masse. Additionally, those who were considering entering the field of healthcare opted for safer, less stressful occupations. COVID has forced a shift in care delivery that will forever alter the healthcare landscape.

This section will review the entrance of mega-corporations into the field of healthcare as well as the growing reliance on medical technology to help fill the staffing gaps.

Mega-Corporations, Medical Technology and Healthcare

Prior to the Great Recession of 2008, most businesses operated with long-term plans of five to seven years. When the subprime housing crisis imploded in the US and Europe in the latter part of 2007, organizations scrambled to revise their long-term strategies. Many entities that were deemed “too big to fail” were wiped from existence. Their sheer size restricted their ability to act quickly enough to avoid catastrophe. Of the largest organizations, only those with substantial financial resources were able to survive the recession.

Due to the widescale collapse of solid-performing global organizations, executives from all fields significantly reduced the length of time within their long-term operating plans. Strategic plans were reduced from five years to three.

As was mentioned in the beginning of this article, healthcare was significantly impacted by COVID. Even though healthcare organizations reduced the timeframe of their strategic plans, no one could effectively predict the level of disruption caused by the pandemic.

Budgets for personal protective equipment (PPE) were quickly decimated as the global demand for these supplies drastically inflated costs. As an example, before COVID, a box of 50 masks typically sold for $10. During the height of the pandemic, the same box was sold for an average of $55. The costs weren’t solely isolated to PPE. Toilet paper, paper towels, office supplies, all reached exorbitant levels.

Additionally, the staffing shortages exacerbated by COVID, caused the hourly rate of contract healthcare workers to rise upwards of 500%. Sign-on bonuses, shift bonuses, and hazardous pay, took its toll on numerous healthcare organizations. The arrival of COVID variants continues to send healthcare organizations scrambling. Many have fallen. Many more will succumb.

This restructuring of healthcare has opened the door for the arrival of mega-corporations.

Google. In November 2019, Google purchased Fitbit and the associated consumer-data. Combined with Google’s massive computing capabilities, it has positioned itself to be among the frontrunners of medical technology. As an example, Fitbit could detect 50% of positive COVID cases a full 24 hours before the user experienced symptoms.

Apple. Developing additional monitoring systems to enable medical professionals to discharge their patients to home far earlier. As an example, neonatal units can discharge infants up to a week earlier by utilizing wearable tracking devices.

Amazon. In June 2018, Amazon purchased startup PillPack. This has effectively given Amazon pharmaceutical licensing in the continental United States. On a global level, the company recently entered the field of wearable medical monitoring with their development of Halo.

Walmart. In late 2019, Walmart launched the first Walmart Health in Dallas, Georgia. The center delivers primary care, labs, X-ray, EKG, counseling, dental, optical, hearing, pharmacy, community health, health insurance enrollment, and healthcare education. The focus of these centers is to provide “low, transparent pricing for key health services for local families, regardless of insurance status” (Walmart.com). With 5,000 stores in the United States and an additional 5,000 stores globally, Walmart is positioned to redefine primary care on a massive scale. And, if the health centers were not enough, Walmart recently (May, 2021) announced its plans to acquire telehealth provider MeMD. This will enable the organization to expand its healthcare footprint exponentially.

The common factor in the mega-corporations’ entrance to healthcare is the vast amounts of computing power and technological innovations these organizations bring to the field. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been developed that can read complex medical images in as little as 20 seconds with 96% accuracy. Surgical robots, automated robotic pharmacies, and robotic virtual screens that can be utilized to visit patients in the hospitals have all been developed.

The science fiction of yesterday has become the reality of today. Healthcare leaders must embrace new models of care delivery and innovation, or they will soon be replaced with those who do.

Written by NAHLP. November 21, 2021

Logo
© 2020 NAHLP. All Rights Reserved