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Will healthcare be fundamentally changed post-Covid-19?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Lightpoet / Shutterstock)

Even prior to the disruption of coronavirus, the landscape of patient care was changing. Online health consultations, embedding health providers in retail locations and remote monitoring of post-surgical patients were becoming more accepted by patients and physicians alike.

In fact, “care model innovation” is one of the key trends driving technology investments in healthcare, according to Deloitte.  But will our collective experiences during the Covid-19 outbreak be enough to propel distributed and virtual care into a significant percentage of care delivery?

As healthcare access changed and matured throughout the 20th century, industrialised nations saw a rise in the prevalence and use of primary care doctors as the gateway to healthcare. People without a primary care doctor increasingly use walk-in clinics for minor ailments.  And we’ve seen a massive rise in the demand for emergency rooms, including for mental health and substance abuse. In many countries, access to care has been improved through growth in public healthcare or the inclusion of health coverage by employers. These routes to health are now seen as the traditional method of care provision, but this is beginning to change too. 

New approaches to healthcare delivery

We utilise care differently now than in generations past. With the rise in outpatient surgical procedures and the recognition that outcomes are improved in the home with monitoring and good physical therapy, the need for long hospital stays, and the beds associated with them is disappearing.

Another driving force for change in healthcare access is the increased use of diagnostics, testing and screening. These can now be carried out in almost any location and through extended hours to meet patient needs and increase convenience.

As we move forward with new approaches to care, new needs for infrastructure and service, and the disruption by new players, “new doors” into healthcare are starting to open and become more prevalent. Analytics can inform locations (both virtual and physical) that are good candidates for care site expansion. Four of these include:

1. Retail pharmacies

Consumers want convenience, so in the trend towards one-stop shopping, the pharmacy is picking up a lot of the primary interactions with patients. And the pharmacy is growing to provide even greater healthcare services. The trend extends to grocery chains, who are employing dietitians to give advice in stores. Companies like Walmart are taking this further and adding primary care physicians in addition to the eye care and audiology services they have offered for many years, becoming a true healthcare provider for both customers and staff.

And the convergence trend isn’t limited to physical stores. Amazon is exploring the potential of setting up a healthcare company just for their staff, which they feel will be a better value and higher quality service than their current healthcare package. They have embraced this in their consumer business too, with pharmacy services and a move into delivery by drones.

2. Retail shopping centres

As we see the move from physical retail to more online shopping, the mall or shopping centre infrastructure that supported shops is emptying and becoming vacant. Healthcare organisations see an opportunity to transform these spaces into care facilities. These repurposed healthcare centres are especially useful for diagnostics and imaging, outpatient surgery, primary care and treatment of minor injuries. Malls and shopping centres make ideal locations for healthcare because they’re designed for large crowds and are often in the centre of communities with transportation infrastructure and ample parking already in place.

In the Nordics, planners are looking at purposely building health malls in new subdivision areas to promote community mix and movement, and in an effort to prevent health issues associated social isolation. The vision is that these facilities will encourage wellness using AI and analytic technology, coupled with access to primary care and other health services.

3. Virtual care

Access to health advice through online channels began with search engines but has become more structured and accurate with the rise of wearable technology and virtual care. The wearables market is primed to explode as regulation and payment models catch up with the potential of the technology.

Phone access to a triage nurse has been common practice for many years. Now, increases in communications bandwidth, common phone apps and the necessity of social distancing during the pandemic have made virtual face-to-face calls more acceptable to both clinicians and consumers. In many locations around the world, virtual care over video was initiated to alleviate the long distances that some clients needed to travel in order to seek help from mental health professionals. Those programs expanded over time to other disciplines, including post-surgical care, dermatology and others.

4. Caring for our seniors and disabled

Improvements to healthcare access and technology will enable patients who have mobility challenges to see their physicians more regularly without the challenge of travel. People of all abilities and ages may be able to stay in their homes longer, instead of transitioning to a care facility. Patients with complex conditions can be monitored and cared for as they would in a senior living facility. In turn, these facilities will need to improve the living experience they offer, invest in digital health technologies and maintain affordability in order to stay relevant.

Where do we go from here?

New doors for healthcare access play a role in managing costs, driving quality and improving patient access and experience. As with all areas of care, change brings both opportunities and challenges. Many of the new doors to care will shine a light on inequality and the social determinates of health.

So, will healthcare delivery change as we know it? Yes, change is inevitable. Many market forces are supporting the transformation to virtual digital health programs and the Covid-19 pandemic is just the latest compelling event. The use of data and analytics in this space will be a game changer, in terms of both achieving better health outcomes, driving health (not just healthcare) and seeing a universal approach to care for the benefit of all citizens.

Greg Horne, Principal Health Analytics Strategist, SAS