Industry Voices—Sure, COVID-19 will still be with us in 2021. But what else lies ahead for healthcare?

As COVID-19 mitigation and vaccines dominate healthcare as we head into 2021, the pandemic is also serving as an accelerant for a host of other challenges facing healthcare companies.

Here are a dozen areas of focus to consider for next year’s strategic planning and resource forecasting.

  1. Financial hurdles. The nation is dealing with extraordinary financial burdens—COVID-19 business closures, rampant unemployment and healthcare costs far outpacing wages. People are delaying care, skipping prescriptions and scaling back on preventive health. Now more than ever, the onus is on healthcare stakeholders to help disillusioned customers navigate the "system" to make personalized, value-based financial and clinical decisions.
  2. Community disparity. Black and Latinx populations see significantly higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, dementia and, during the pandemic, a greater number of coronavirus deaths at younger ages. Addressing health inequities, social determinants of health and factors such as health literacy among diverse population groups is fundamental to solving the imbalance of affordability and access to health services in underserved, vulnerable communities.
  3. Mental well-being. Everything changed in 2020—work, school, travel, entertainment and healthcare—and it’s taken a far-reaching psychological toll. Americans have tested positive for pandemic fatigue! Over half of Generation Z and millennials report struggles with mental health during the pandemic. Addressing mental and behavioral health has moved to mission-critical status: identification of warning signs, elimination of barriers to interventions and removal of social stigmas.

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  4. Trust barriers. The pandemic has shaken consumer confidence. Debates over evidenced science, public health failings, and the politics of COVID has wary consumers asking: will you do the right thing when it comes to my health? There’s a trust gap, and to overcome it healthcare brands must deliver information in ways that move consumers to action, exude empathy and sincerity, and are agile enough to keep pace with the scale of marketplace change.
  5. It's personal. Health consumerism puts individuals in control as they select benefits, choose providers, compare prices and navigate care options. But ultimately, good health relies on personal responsibility … taking care of yourself, dealing with health issues, adhering to a plan of action and owning wellness. Balancing consumerism and responsibility—from preventive screenings to healthy eating to vaccinations—takes personal commitment; without it, there are consequences.
  6. Digital dominance. With over 230 billion health-related Google searches every year, and an estimate that 20% of all medical visits in 2020 went virtual, it’s not "digital health," it’s health for the digital consumer. Technology empowers consumers to take ownership of their health—self-diagnose, change behavior, monitor treatment and interact with their providers. On the digital maturity curve, healthcare has moved beyond transformation; it’s now competitive table stakes.
  7. Citizen uninsured. Going into 2020 there were approximately 29.5 million people uninsured, and it’s trending upward. With massive COVID-19-driven layoffs and workplace furloughs, loss of employer-based health benefits is estimated to result in over 10 million people being added to ranks of uninsured. The impact will be extensive for payer product portfolios, provider uncompensated care, state Medicaid capacity and, most importantly, the country’s health.
  8. OK, boomer. Leading-edge boomers, ages 65 to 74, have been hard hit by the pandemic. They’re experiencing higher unemployment and have seen retirement plans upended. But their biggest anxiety lies in a sobering statistic: Americans over age 65 are 16% of the population yet 80% of COVID-19 deaths. Boomerhood is supposed to be a fulfilling, exciting life stage characterized by "active aging" and newfound freedoms. Instead, it’s stress-filled life interrupted.
  9. Martech heathtech. Acquiring, engaging and retaining customers—patients, members, beneficiaries—challenges every health brand. As competition intensifies, markets adjus, and consumer demands shift, managing the customer life cycle takes targeted insight and operational efficiency. It requires a best-in-class health marketing technology platform … full-funnel audience intelligence to drive personalized content for proactive, measured customer interactions.
  10. Friction fatigue. Cancel culture is alive and well. As customers spend more time online during the pandemic, consumer activism has seen an uptick. And, it extends beyond social and political issues to brands’ product and service promises. Unmet expectations result in customer boycotts, broken loyalties and viral callouts. If there’s ever been a time for health companies to rethink customer experiences, it’s now. Turn points of friction into moments of satisfaction.
  11. Politics unknown. After the most contentious election in the nation’s history the new administration brings an ambitious health policy agenda (aside from COVID-19 mitigation): protecting the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion, Medicare to age 60, prescription drug price relief and modernizing the public health infrastructure. For consumers, the goal is a much simpler: access to affordable healthcare choices with seamless, personalized experiences led by trusted health partners.
  12. Facts matter. The evidence is in: Wearing a mask prevents spread of COVID-19. Even with a vaccine, masks are here to stay in 2021. Thousands of droplets are generated when someone speaks, and nearly all of them are blocked when the nose and mouth is covered. Maskless, coronavirus droplets travel 20 feet. Wearing a mask protects you, your family and friends. Follow public health’s 3 W’s: wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.

As we close out a year when “you’re on mute” emerged as the top quote, expect 2021 to be another 12 months of "business as unusual" in healthcare. Remain resilient, but prepare to pivot. Plan for disorder, reset strategic priorities, reenergize value propositions and anticipate a future of uncertainty in the march down the road of COVID-19 recovery. Your customers depend on it.

Lindsay R. Resnick, MHA, is executive vice president at Wunderman Thompson Health. He can be reached at [email protected]