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21 Predictions About Digital Health in 2021: Part IV

21 Predictions About Digital Health in 2021 Virtual Health

In my previous posts, I looked at five macro-themes as well as five implications for hospitals and health plans. In this post, I want to focus on virtual health and have enlisted co-author David Allen, Director of Virtual Health Strategy.

These predictions are in light of the five themes I see for 2021:

  • Telehealth as a competitive advantage,
  • New insurance markets,
  • More self-service digital triage tools,
  • Mega-mergers of vertically integrated health delivery models, and
  • Multi-dimensional, socially-driven contract tracing.

In PART FOUR, we turn to five specific predictions for virtual health for 2021:

16. It’s Not Just About Telehealth

For nearly two decades, maybe more, the potential for virtual health has been a promise just waiting to be fulfilled. As we explored earlier in this series, growth in the poster child use case for virtual health – telehealth (or virtual visits) – as a result of Covid-19 has been astonishing. Forrester Research shows that as early as July 2020, 80% of US providers had conducted a virtual consult in the prior three months.

Consumers’ growing comfort in virtual or digital health interactions also stands to impact other segments of virtual health. For instance, benefit is also likely for both the condition-specific targeted solutions and cross-condition platforms that have been steadily building capabilities and success stories in remote monitoring, dosimetry, medication adherence, and digital therapeutics.

While a good amount of that adoption remains subject to a (still) imperfect reimbursement environment, the sheer demand aligned with increasing comfort will be a major factor in 2021.

OUR PREDICTION: Virtual health will no longer be simplistically defined as the virtual visit. Leaders from both the core virtual consult world like Teladoc and Amwell as well as RPM leaders like Vivify and cross-platform digital enablers like Microsoft, Amazon and Google will be looking to re-state and broaden the industry definition and understanding for a newly engaged audience.

17. Consistent Experiences Matter in Virtual Health, Too

The flipside to all of this activity, of course, is that an already imperfect consumer journey has the potential to become even more complex as a direct result of more options.

For several years, payers have keenly promoted access to supplemental tools and platforms with a simple goal in mind: to affect behavioral change and drive better preventative care through healthier living and lifestyle tools (or is that vice versa?).

Virtual health is evolving into an increasingly sophisticated portfolio of tools hospital systems and payers seek to offer to their consumers. This intersection of technology and delivery inevitably lengthens one of the “ends” in end-to-end consumer experience. Maintaining some semblance of brand positioning in the array of experiences is going to become a major battlefront for healthcare marketers – a demand that becomes especially pronounced as retail and other vendors actively pursue the same audience for their contained versions of the same tools.

OUR PREDICTION: We expect providers and payers to begin actively marketing an array of carefully curated options in virtual health (moving beyond visits) as the market evolves. Those options can become a point of differentiation and maybe even a means of educating and increasing comfort levels with a nationally scaled-up contact tracing program.

18. Virtual Health Isn’t All Plug-and-Play

As healthcare organizations lean into a broader universe of virtual health, their internal potential to complement, enhance and, in some cases, entirely replicate specialized third-party offerings offers plenty of development runway.

Going into 2021, we expect and are already seeing major cross-industry platforms like Microsoft, Amazon and Twilio build appetite around those roles. Their use cases – over and above the underlying core infrastructure and cloud enablement – range from focused complementary apps in the Power platform all the way to contact center components of a virtual health nerve center, and everything in between.

The familiar balancing act of buy vs. build will play out in this space as with any other. The exception though is that the learning feedback loop that comes out of decision pitfalls will come faster than ever. In part, this is because so much innovation (small “i”!) is happening so quickly and across so many new fields (e.g., vaccine scheduling, tracing, etc.) all at once.

OUR PREDICTION: Expect major expansions of the role that Big Tech plays in virtual health with emphasis on enabling and orchestrating a “portfolio” rather than developing specialized, proprietary platforms. A true village, hopefully without parochial strategies.

19. Virtual Health – Insights Through Integration

Hand in hand with the theme of more custom development (or perhaps custom enablement), goes the mantra of integration. 

We have avoided the risk of understating virtual health’s impact in the context of health delivery and consumer journeys. There is also great potential value, however, that can be brought to healthcare organizations by appropriately deriving insights from HOW their patient and member populations use and interact with these tools they are now so comfortable using.

The challenge here is that, while many fully crafted vendor tools come ready-to-use with their EMR APIs built in, the same is not nearly as universally true when it comes to the paths to ingest and draw insight within CRM and BI tools. This then becomes a specific frontier in the whole CRM/CMS integration story.

OUR PREDICTION: Watch this space for interesting insight through virtual health integrations as healthcare clinicians, marketers, and technologists collaborate. Putting the right options in front of the right people at the right time can make all the difference to cementing virtual health’s success.

20. Digital Therapeutics Go (Even More) Mainstream:

As with much of the virtual health universe, there have been many false dawns along the way. However, the emerging DTx space is particularly well placed for growth given all the underlying drivers for virtual health – growing focus on virtually managing at-risk patients as well as a long shot potential arguments for application of the Medicare Coverage for Innovative Technologies.

Unfortunately, digital therapeutics has largely been a marketing gloss encompassing everything from tightly defined prescription digital therapeutics domains through to a Venn diagram overlap with personal fitness tools and behavior modification tools. We expect these blurry edges to continue even as additional products and services are brought online.

OUR PREDICTION: Expect to see a lot of payer focus on this space in line with the discussion of virtual health experiences above, but with a twist. How do you communicate and drive journeys consistently and avoid confusing the newbie virtual health-er across an evolving but undoubtedly exciting new world of options.

DISCOVER MORE: Our guide Healthcare Everywhere: Why Digital Transformation is at the Heart of Telehealth explores the coordinated system used to deliver medical, health, and educational services across a wider geographical footprint than is available under a traditional brick-and-mortar care model.

And now, here is the final 21st prediction:

21. It’s a Brand New World

We’ll soon be living (we hope) in the after phase of COVID. What we take from this experience will strengthen or weaken the relationships we’ve built.

PREDICTION: Once the world opens, there will be a sea change of movement and suddenly onboarding new patients, doctors, members, systems, etc. is going to speed up. There’s no going back, only forward.

With that, all of us wish you a fulfilling 2021.


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Paul Griffiths

Paul Griffiths is the GM of the Digital Healthcare Solutions unit at Perficient, where he works with hospital and health plan marketing departments on digital initiatives. DHS services integrated healthcare delivery systems around the United States.

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