Trends Relevant in Healthcare Before COVID-19 Will Remain So After

The coronavirus pandemic has been a seismic disturbance however in a post-COVID-19 environment transformational healthcare trends will be back with a vengeance.

Futurists and pundits are advising healthcare companies to look forward and not backward in a post-COVID-19 world. However, the coronavirus pandemic was an interrupter, a sudden force unsettling the healthcare landscape early in 2020. Healthcare trends shaping strategic plans and tactical implementation efforts were moving full-speed ahead. And then, boom… everything came to a screeching halt, agendas were put on hold, and budgets were frozen or suspended indefinitely.

While there’s consensus COVID-19 has changed the business of healthcare forever, it’s important not to dismiss the trends that were influencing investments and used to deploy resources designed to shape the future of healthcare. Reevaluating and reactivating these initiatives intended to improve the way healthcare is delivered, financed and accessed by consumers is critical to accelerate a return to normalcy.

It will take time for the trends that were driving healthcare’s transformation and innovation to get back on track. There’s no question the coronavirus pandemic will require a rethinking of priorities and reorientation of strategies as underlying market dynamics of a recovery, and eventually, a "new normal" evolve.

Following are 10 trends that cut across the healthcare ecosystem prior to COVID-19 and will undoubtedly reemerge and restart going forward albeit at a different velocity and voraciousness.

1. Healthcare Consumerism Families are in crisis, wrestling with an array of financial burdens to a degree few ever experienced before - unemployment, financial market downturn, business closures, and strained household budgets. People are being stressed-tested to the max. In the short-term, uncertainty about the COVID-19 shutdown timeline is driving high levels of anxiety. Add to the mix healthcare costs, already outpacing wages, with high deductible health plans and climbing out-of-pocket expenses, consumers are facing extraordinary financial burdens. They are delaying care, skipping prescriptions, and ignoring chronic conditions.

As we push consumers to take more personal responsibility for financial healthcare decisions the onus is on healthcare brands to support their customers make value-based, clinically effective choices.

2. Social Determinants We know that socioeconomic inequalities in income, housing, jobs, nutrition, and education are forces that can have twice the impact on an individual’s health than biology, DNA, and clinical care. COVID-19 has highlighted these health disparities in terms of who gets tested, hospitalized, and treated. It has been particularly glaring in African American communities. Going into 2020, initiatives addressing Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) were gaining significant traction among payers and providers (e.g., safe housing, food markets and delivery, job training, medical transportation). Addressing SDoH is critical for improving health outcomes and reducing health disparities.

Investing in epidemiological, data-driven methodologies that support SDoH programs focused on under-served populations will improve quality of life and over time, life expectancy.

3. Trust Challenge Historically, consumers don’t trust the healthcare industry. When asked: will they do the right thing by my health - most healthcare brands come up short. That said, COVID-19 has moved the trustability needle. Healthcare workers - doctors, nurses, front-line staff, first responders -had people cheering in the streets. Health insurance companies were praised for broadening benefits such as telehealth, and waiving co-pays and deductibles. Even the pharmaceutical industry, where pricing horror stories have drawn the ire of consumers and regulators alike, is being viewed as heroes as they amend redirect agendas to dedicate resources to coronavirus testing methods and vaccine development.

To build trust and gain respect, healthcare companies must deliver relevant, simple narratives tied to a brand purpose. Communications need to be adaptable to the pace and scope of marketplace change, and exude honesty and sincerity about how, why, and what you are doing.

4. Uninsured Surge Going into 2020 there were approximately 29 million uninsured Americans, slowly trending upward. With massive layoffs and loss of employer-based health care coverage (more than 20 million filing unemployment) it’s estimated that another seven to 15 million people may join the ranks of the uninsured. Expect uncompensated care and bad debt to spike as providers attempt to manage uninsured patients as well as those "underinsured" unable to meet out-of-pocket obligations. Given threats to the aimed at hastening the demise of Affordable Care Act’s and pre-existing condition protections, it may be the perfect storm for continued growth of uninsured citizens that could last for years.

Medicaid enrollment will increase, individual insurance markets will expand, and debate will intensify around single-payer healthcare, Obamacare and Public Option proposals. Reforming the healthcare system will be a major focus of the 2020 election (#VOTE).

5. Population Health There’s nothing like a contagion to shine a light on the importance of putting patient data into actionable profiles so care providers can improve clinical interventions and financial outcomes for different patient risk segments. Population health takes a community orientation to coordinating medical needs across the population and across the care continuum. The result improves experiences and quality, lowers cost, and can be measured by health outcomes. Primary care is at the center of population health, through medical home models and value-based payment schemes. Recent growth of primary care retail clinics and networks (e.g., hospital branded, Walmart, CVS, Iora Health, OneMedical) are important driver of population health.

Population health is focused on the health of ordinary people. Today, COVID-19 proved there are glaring gaps in the country’s public health system. Going forward we need a scalable, data-driven approach to improve community healthcare structures built around coordinated, patient-centered care management.

6. CX Transformation Americans are scarred. Quarantine, lockdown, shelter-at-home, social distancing, and "six feet of separation" of knowing a friend or family coronavirus fatality has taken its toll on the nation. People are overwhelmed as their lives have been turned upside-down for months and changing daily. Patients and health plan members have always ranked customer service as the most important factor influencing loyalty, and healthcare brands have consistently fallen short when it comes to delivering frictionless, customer friendly experiences. Consumers want interactions on their terms throughout their healthcare journey and are setting expectations around their favorite customer experience outside the healthcare sector. Healthcare companies need to keep pace.

Handle with care! Your customers are feeling very vulnerable and need help. They need to feel included and respected. And, they need a reliable, empathetic healthcare partner. Now more than ever superior CX wins.

7. Mental Health The psychological impact of a pandemic and it’s associated "life disruptors" – social distancing, school and business shut downs, prolonged isolation, healthcare worker burnout - are far-reaching and will take a toll on many Americans. It crisscrosses generations with depression and anxiety, loneliness and grieving, alcohol, drug and domestic abuse, and panic and psychoses. Additionally, it impacts customers, business partners and stakeholders (not to mention family and friends). Mental health services improve emotional, psychological, and social well-being but most importantly, these programs save lives. Awareness and support of effective mental and behavioral health resources is essential in the current and future COVID-19 environment.

What’s it going to take to turn mental illness into mental wellness: identify and pay attention to warning signs, break down barriers to open access to behavioral health professional interventions, and work to remove social stigmas around mental health disorders.

8. Point-Of-Care The shift from hospital-based services and physician offices to in-home care, DIY, retail clinics, and digital health (telemedicine and virtual care) was a rapidly advancing trend earlier this year. It has matured three years in the last three months…and there’s no going back. The promotion and subsequent consumer uptake of telemedicine resulting from the onslaught of COVID-19 is a prime example. Another trend sprouting out of the pandemic is the new, more prominent roles for nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Healthcare consumers are telling the market they are ready to embrace new sites of care, experiment with innovative health solutions, and take ownership of their health through digital touchpoints.

Healthcare brands need to adapt and work across the point-of-care continuum to remove barriers to care, create convenience-driven experiences, and inspire patients to face personal health challenges and stay motivated to proactively deal with their health.

9. Generational Angst Going into 2020 it was clear that whether Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X or Boomer, they don’t want to engage with the healthcare system the way it is currently structured. COVID19 has brought its own new dynamics. Gen Z is being relabeled Gen V with COVID19 a life defining event for them, disrupting entry into adulthood, altering earning potential and eroding trust in institutions…it’s this generation’s 9/11. Millennials are also anxious, less about coronavirus as a health crisis but rather its financial, job prospect, and cost of living implications. For Boomers, not only are they a vulnerable at-risk group (and suffering from ‘boomer remover’ memes), it has brought a new twist to their work, retirement, and financial planning.

One size doesn’t fit all. Use actionable data-driven individual insights to have a cross-generational view of customer preferences, expectations, attitudes and behaviors.

10. Disrupted Disruptors Health and medical technology companies were seeing record levels of funding and valuations. Through creative collaboration, either acquisitions or partnership, healthcare markets were being moved in new directions: Best Buy/Great Call, Google/Ascension, Apple/Johnson & Johnson, and Amazon/Pillpack. And, healthcare’s innovation index was in overdrive using artificial intelligence, wearables, robotics, genomics and internet of things to advance connected health communities reshaping consumer experiences. While COVID19 has slowed, in some instances stalled, the momentum of innovation, it won’t stop it.

Successful companies don’t sit still in disrupted markets. Startups and established companies need to keep pushing the limits to retool and improve the healthcare value chain: contain costs, reduce expenditures, improve quality, and increase efficiency.

What’s on the other side?

Healthcare companies are facing their own challenges: revenue and growth shortfalls, work-from-home disruption, stakeholder pressures, and shifting customer needs and demands. Picking up where you left off pre-COVID-19 takes enterprise agility. It means strategic pivoting and business nimbleness. This crisis is an opportunity for healthcare brands to act, not sit still in a ‘wait & see’ mode. Consumers need help traversing healthcare’s treacherous terrain as they move from initial shock to recovery to a "new normal" in a COVID-19 world order.

Uncertainty and volatility will reign for the foreseeable future. Preparing for a post-COVID-19 future is a complex calculation based on four values:

  • Relevance. Align with customer needs, for recovery and ‘new normal’ phases.

  • Defendability. Position around brand purpose recognizing COVID impact and inspiring action.

  • Differentiation. Activate messaging born from your brand setting you apart in the market.

  • Sustainability. Deliver tangible value in the short-term that’s transportable to the future.

Brands that are human centric, show empathy and take noticeable action on behalf their customers will do well in earning goodwill, appreciation and loyalty. Customers admire companies that take action on their behalf to alleviate the impact of crises, protect and improve the value they receive, and bring back a sense of normalcy.

Lindsay R. Resnick, MHA is executive vice president at Wunderman Thompson Health.