The year 2020 signaled the start of the biggest, most disruptive healthcare challenge since World War 2. At the same time, we’ve seen health challenges prioritized like never before, as well as the biggest outpouring of thanks in a generation towards the health sector.

In Rio De Janeiro, a doctor’s uniform was projected onto the famous Christ the Redeemer statue with the words “Obrigado” cast underneath. Billboards in Manhattan cycled through messages of thanks, as the Empire State building became bathed in red light to honor emergency services. And in the UK, people stood in their doorways in their millions to applaud the work done by healthcare staff across the country.

We’d like to start this blog by showing our absolute appreciation and admiration for everything the healthcare sector does, and everything health workers do, to keep us safe and well – last year, today and in the future.

And it’s towards this future that we’d like to turn our attention. More specifically, the immediate future.

As we look ahead to the remainder of 2021, how has COVID-19 shaped the industry? What healthcare trends do we expect to see come to the fore ? And will the pandemic have a lasting impact on the way key services are delivered?

A look back at the healthcare sector in 2020

COVID-19 was undeniably the big healthcare story of 2020. And while none of us wouldn’t like to relive it, we must first look at the stage the pandemic set for the years, if not decades, ahead.

The first – and perhaps most obvious – is a rise in public awareness of health and hygiene risks. 

It went far beyond better handwashing and mask-wearing etiquette; PwC reported that 84% of people would now share their medical data with doctors to help find new healthcare treatments or innovations. And 58% would be willing to take part in medical research aimed at developing COVID-19 vaccines. 

Put simply, people prioritized their health and the health of others, even when sensitive subjects like their personal data entered the conversation.

Employers and brands also became more health-conscious in 2020. Many businesses introduced widespread work-from-home policies, as well as hygiene and social-distancing measures, to protect staff and customers. 

And then there’s the huge adoption of certain digital healthcare technologies – both by medical organizations and patients – many of which we’ll focus on in this article.

Healthcare industry trends for 2021

Even with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines at the end of last year, it’s likely that the impact of the virus will continue to shape healthcare trends in 2021. With that in mind, here are our thoughts on the biggest trends we’ll see come to fruition in the remainder of 2021.

1. Telehealth takes off

When we talk about technologies that have exploded over the past 12 months, we have to mention video conferencing.

Businesses adopted it in droves to keep connected when working from home. And, of course, the wider population took to it as a means to maintain some normalcy in their everyday lives – be it for Zoom quizzes with friends or family catch-ups.

The healthcare industry has followed a similar suit. Telehealth visits grew by a huge 50% during the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

In terms of the future delivery of health services, that’s a trend that’s likely to continue in 2021 and far beyond. Around 16.5 million Americans are estimated to have used telehealth for the first time during the pandemic – and an encouraging 88% said they’d do so again. 

Why is telehealth popular among patients? One survey found that 94% of people who sampled telehealth for the first time last year liked the convenience and ease of virtual visits.

Doctors are reportedly fans, too. More than three in four doctors support a shift towards more telemedicine, provided the circumstances are right. 

What’s more, telehealth isn’t just being used for low-risk patients. Overall, 69% of people who used telehealth and telemedicine for the first time last year were receiving support for chronic or complex-chronic conditions. The greater accessibility of telehealth services could prove life-changing for these people. 

The past few months have been a big inflection point for digital healthcare. Patients have seen how convenient it can be to get help via online channels. And healthcare organizations have adapted to the trend, putting into process the channels, security and digitization to make it all work.

The stage is set for much more telehealth from here on out.

2. Increased AI investment

Artificial intelligence (AI) has already made significant inroads into healthcare, and momentum is growing as the industry focuses on digital transformation for 2021.

A good recent example is how AI is being used to tackle COVID-19. Scientists have been working on an algorithm that could help diagnose the disease from just a sound recording of a cough, even in asymptomatic patients.

Robot-assisted surgery, virtual nursing assistants, admin workflow support, fraud detection and dosage error reductions are just some of the areas where AI could help speed up processes, improve accuracy and reduce staff workloads. 

And that’s not yet mentioning how the healthcare sector is adopting conversational AI. The ability for AI to simulate natural conversation can impact everything from health education, health literacy rates, treatment for those who feel too embarrassed to seek care, triage in virtual settings and companionship for those suffering from loneliness.

It shows the sheer range of ways AI can help in healthcare – and there are financial reasons to increase adoption, too.

Accenture figures predict that health-based AI applications will generate $150 billion of annual savings for the industry in the US alone by 2026. Worldwide, the healthcare AI industry could be worth more than $34 billion within the next five years.

3. Healthcare chatbots continue to rise

With more people turning online for their customer service during lockdowns, chatbots became a more common point of contact many consumers had with brands last year. Chatbots now need to step up their game, especially when it comes to providing health and wellbeing information.

The Edelman Trust Barometer found that 85% of customers want organizations to use their power to educate. In a pandemic, this means offering instructional information on what measures the brand is taking and how people can protect themselves. 

Leading the way in this regard, the CDC website has a Microsoft Healthcare chatbot, which enables users to ask about the symptoms they are suffering. But many organizations, including those not necessarily in the medical sector, are also finding new, digital ways to interact and educate with people.

In fact, 83% of people said they want more compassionate connections, with brand messaging that shows companies understand the health and wellbeing struggles their customers are facing. 

But that’s only a first step – albeit a good one. In reality, chatbots can only communicate via text, which doesn’t make for the best patient engagement and outcomes. Only a very small proportion of us learn best by reading text alone, as outlined in the four learning styles of VARK methodology.

An accessible healthcare chatbot that aims to interact with care, attention, empathy and (frankly) ROI, must have more humanity to it.

That’s why our polling shows that 42% of brands are prioritizing adding a more human experience to their chatbot channels, with digital human solutions leading the charge in making that possible. Expect to see more of these humanized chatbot strategies hit the market as we progress further into 2021.

4. A focus on mental health service innovation

As we head deeper into 2021, the detrimental effects of lockdowns, social distancing and remote working policies on mental health will become more apparent. Many households will also be facing money worries, with the virus wreaking havoc on some economies.

Early indications suggest many businesses (at least in the US) are doing what they can to support staff. According to PwC, 62% of employed consumers said their organization had given them at least one new health perk in 2020, with 8% being specifically offered additional mental health and stress-related benefits. 

Not everyone is employed, however. And those who are in work still may not receive the assistance they need. Health services may therefore see a surge in patients who are struggling with their mental health. 

This could place significant strain on mental health services, which are already chronically underfunded worldwide. Healthcare providers are likely to increasingly turn to AI and other innovative technologies in 2021 to ease this burden where possible.

The upside is that people are now more aware than they ever have been of their mental health – their challenges, their triggers and common ways to improve it.

At the same time, technologies have been tackling some of these issues directly. From apps like Headspace to AI sleep coaches like Digital JK from Mentemia. The understanding and focus on mental health and wellbeing will surely continue for the months (and years) to come.

5. Urgently addressing healthcare worker burnout

From one pandemic leading to another, burnout rates for healthcare workers have soared in recent months around the world – understandably given the challenge at hand. 

And burnout in the workplace is somewhat misunderstood, as we learnt on a recent webinar hosted by Mentemia. It’s not just being overworked; it’s being overworked to the point that even a long break doesn’t recharge the batteries.

In medical terms, it’s more resembles a chronic disease, not a common ailment that can be easily treated. And people who suffer from burnout are deeply affected. Some common symptoms outlined by Suzi McAlpine in her book Beyond Burnout include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Becoming distant with people (personally and professionally)
  • Increased cynicism
  • Increased feelings of self-doubt and similar signs of imposter syndrome

So how widespread is it? Last year, around 43% of physicians said they are suffering from burnout, climbing as high as 54% among professions like anesthesiology. Compare that to 2013, when a significant but much lower 26% of physicians reported the same, and the effects of the pandemic are clear. 

The effect of this: well, in the 2013 study, 28% said they intended to leave their jobs within two years as a result of burnout. Two years later, around half of those (13%) had actually done so.

The healthcare sector simply cannot cope if burnout is not effectively managed. The industry is already tasked with recruiting 11.6 million clinicians by 2026 to keep up with demand. Widespread resignations will be incredibly damaging, and costly. While even staff who don’t resign despite burnout are compromised in their abilities to deliver the highest level of care.

So, we optimistically predict that 2021 is a year when we’ll witness a sea change in how burnout is managed throughout the healthcare sector. Technology will be a constant enabler, helping workers manage their stress, while making medical environments more efficient.

And it’s another area where conversational AI is touted to excel. Virtual assistants, chatbots and digital humans are all able to handle some of the lower-touch and less complex tasks, like providing dietary advice or explaining the purpose of medication. Ultimately, this puts some time back into the calendars of nurses, physicians and administrative staff – for the good of staff and patients.

Healthcare workers have done so much for the general public, in the past few months especially. We’re adamant 2021 becomes the year where we transition from thanking essential health workers by lighting up the Empire State Building or applauding on our porches, to also thanking them in more long-lasting ways.

A BIG year ahead for healthcare

So how do we sum this up? Healthcare professionals have been the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. They have worked tirelessly, putting their own lives on the line to save others during the pandemic.

But digital transformation within the industry is sorely needed to ensure they can continue to do their jobs properly, so patients receive the best possible care. 

For the hugely, incredibly sad impact COVID-19 has had on society, it has been a true trigger for change.

Patients demands have changed, the appetite for healthcare innovation has changed, the healthcare technologies available have changed. We’ve all changed as people.

2021 is shaping up to be a year of innovation for healthcare – and it’s come at a time when it’s needed most.

Digital humans eBook CT