7 predictions for what lies ahead for health tech in 2021

Experts say that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital health and virtual care forward by at least three years.

The industry has fast-forwarded in areas like telehealth, remote monitoring, and artificial intelligence and this will cause disruptive changes that will significantly impact the technology market. Many experts, for example, expect that communication and collaboration tools will explode in 2021. 

Next-generation solutions for patient matching also will be in high demand as COVID-19 vaccination efforts roll out, said Mark LaRow, CEO of Verato.

From analytics to telehealth to care coordination around COVID-19 testing and tracing, providers are integrating more data sources and conventional patient matching methods will no longer suffice, he said.

Healthcare stakeholders got out their crystal balls and shared their thoughts with Fierce Healthcare on what changes will come for the healthcare technology sector in 2021 and how healthcare organizations will adapt.  

Here’s what the new year holds in store for health tech:

1. Consumers will be in the driver’s seat in 2021: The way patients experience healthcare is evolving, and these changes, catalyzed by consumer behavior, COVID-19, and technology, among other accelerants, are causing healthcare economic dynamics to restructure, according to Mary Edwards, president of healthcare provider business at NTT Data Services.

“Consumer’s expectation levels around virtual and digital healthcare are also rising, and business processes will change to meet those expectations. As a result, technology will help healthcare providers meet the new expectation levels of ‘digital’ in their healthcare offerings, and consumers will take the driver’s seat in their own healthcare journeys,” she said.

Healthcare organizations will be pushed to leverage technology to support patients as they go about their daily lives, including supporting social determinants of health, according to Susan Collins, Twilio’s global head of healthcare.

“Patients expect their experiences to be personalized and tailored to their preferences and prior interactions," Collins said.

"The opportunity to leverage technologies like smart devices, machine learning and orchestrated omnichannel communication tools allow this sort of tailored experience to be delivered at scale for a reasonable cost, creating the opportunity for a much more proactive approach to health management as a continuum of care rather than a reactive, transactional experience that has been common in the past,” she said.

RELATED: The COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-term impact on healthcare. Here are 4 changes to expect

2. Virtual care services will expand, but there will be risks: Reimbursements for virtual care will likely be expanded through 2021, as a new hybrid model combining telehealth check-ins and in-person visits will become the norm, according to Baha Zeidan, CEO of Azalea Health.

“Although it started with one-off check-ins or virtual mental health coaching, 2021 will see the continued rise in the use and efficacy of virtual care services once thought to be in-person only such as maternity, postpartum, pediatric, and even tutoring,” said Cleo CEO Sarahjane Sacchetti.

“Employers are taking notice of this shift with 32% indicating that expanded virtual health services are a top priority, and this number will quickly rise as employers look to offer flexible and convenient benefits in support of employees and to drive productivity,” she said.

But there is a downside to the rapid shift to virtual care; 2021 will see the first COVID-19-related medical malpractice suits, predicts Bob White, executive vice president at The Doctors Company.

“For months, healthcare providers have been in crisis mode as they faced the challenges of the pandemic. As new forms of care take shape, it is certain that COVID-related claims are also on the horizon,” he said. 

3. Cash will continue to flow into digital health: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry garnered an influx of public and private investment at a level the industry hasn’t seen before.

The pandemic forced non-digitally native companies to rapidly develop the ability to care for patients through digital means and these factors drove up the value of companies providing these services, leading to the deals such as the Livongo/Teledoc merger and the Amwell initial public offering, according to Jami Doucette, president of Premise Health.

"We’ll see an acceleration of the 2020 trends in deal flow, such as M&A and IPOs for quality assets will be rare and competitive, driving up valuation," he said.

At the same time, digital health companies will become more comprehensive rather than focus on just one health problem. In areas like women's health, CB Insights managing analyst Ja Lee believes tech firms will take a more integrated approach by focusing on issues like menopause and the relationship to other chronic conditions. 

RELATED: Tech experts: Widespread adoption of telemedicine, remote monitoring 'here to stay'

4. 2021 will be pivotal for machine learning and artificial intelligence: The industry has heard about advances in AI for years, but in 2021, healthcare will start to see the benefits of machine learning in solutions that are highly scalable, predicts Tom Knight, CEO of Invistics.

New technology funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, can detect and fix many problems with medication administration, while helping to raise hospital revenues by millions of dollars annually, Knight said.

Providers are increasingly accepting AI’s role in medicine and the capability to identify sequences and trends in data that humans cannot,” said Yann Fleureau, co-founder and CEO of Cardiologs.

Kimberly Powell, vice president and general manager at NVIDIA Healthcare, predicts that hospitals will get “smarter.” Similar to the experience at home, smart speakers and smart cameras will help automate and inform activities.

The technology, when used in hospitals, will help scale the work of nurses on the front lines, increase operational efficiency and provide virtual patient monitoring to predict and prevent adverse patient events, said Powell.

5. The shift to the cloud will ramp up: The financial pressures of the pandemic has led many providers to reevaluate the overhead costs of managing their IT infrastructure on-premises and this is leading a shift to cloud-based EHR platforms, according to Zeidan.  

Cloud-based systems will enable providers to access patient data anywhere, enabling telehealth and better care coordination.

John Matthews, managing director of healthcare and life sciences at Teradata, said the smart money is on leaders that recognize the difference between solutions that solve problems and trends that attract mob mentality and next-silver-bulletism.

“Like all choices, the question is efficacy and value: where is cloud a net benefit as opposed to a net-negative and what might you give up by staying on-prem or going cloud?” he said.

RELATED: How COVID-19 shifted healthcare executives' technology priorities and what to expect in 2021

6. Walmart will redesign healthcare (so will Amazon and Alphabet): With 85% of Americans living within a 15-minute drive to a Walmart—it’s one of the most accessible resources with ample opportunity to serve rural populations or Medicaid recipients.

By establishing healthcare facilities within a reliable, low-cost no-frills environment that is functional bright and clean, Walmart can introduce predictability, innovation, and standardization that align with the social determinates of the working core, said Andy Arends, vice president, health plan solution strategy and innovation at NTT Data Services.

“This ultimately means Walmart will become both the health plan and the provider and eventually lead to the creation of own its insurance distribution as well,” he said.

7. Social determinants efforts will shift from aspirational to operational: Megan Callahan, vice president of healthcare at Lyft, believes efforts to measure social determinants of health data will solidify in 2021.

“As social determinants of health interventions are used more frequently in healthcare, there have been calls-to-action across the industry to create a standardized approach to collecting and measuring SDOH data and we believe that will begin to take shape in 2021,” she said. “Partnerships to enable measurement are already happening in 2020, including our recent integration with Epic, which will allow health systems to measure the impact of rideshare on hospital spend and population health outcomes.”