The healthcare industry responded with astonishing speed to the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. Practically overnight, it shifted much of its work onto virtual platforms and digital technologies; and in doing so, packed a decade’s worth of reforms into a few short months.
In their new report, Global Top Health Industry Issues 2021, PwC looks at four top issues that now affect global healthcare providers, insurers, pharmaceutical and life sciences companies, new entrants and employers. PwC surveyed 10,000 consumers across 10 territories, in January 2021, along with interviews with healthcare leaders.
Striking the right balance on virtual clinical care
The pandemic forced an immediate halt of most in-person, non-urgent care and the quick uptake of virtual healthcare. Since the initial spike in spring 2020, the use of virtual, or remote, healthcare has declined somewhat. But it remains at a level significantly higher than it was before the pandemic.
The actions of investors and players and the opinions of consumers suggest that demand for virtual care will remain high even once COVID vaccination becomes more widespread.
Advances in technology and consumers’ desire for convenience are expected to drive the adoption of virtual care to a level that disrupts the traditional care delivery system. The PwC global health consumer survey shows extremely high interest in remote care—whether via smartphones or video appointments—even once people are able to return to in-person care.
As a result, provider and payer organisations must develop forward-looking, comprehensive virtual care strategies that make sense from both a patient care and business perspective.
- Protect against inequities in access to virtual care among vulnerable populations who do not have the mobile devices, connectivity, and digital literacy needed to participate.
- Address health data privacy and security by boosting cyber-security efforts as more people use telemedicine, healthcare apps and remote monitoring devices.
- Manage for change by providing upskilling opportunities, building organisational digital fitness and helping employees adjust to changing work practices.
Harnessing data analytics
COVID-19 was the first truly global pandemic in the age of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data. But when the pandemic arrived, healthcare organisations often struggled to find the basic information they needed to respond, and the disorganised rollout of COVID vaccination programmes in many countries illustrates how much more must be done to harness the power of data and analytics.
A recognition of the power of data analytics to improve care, enhance the patient experience and lower costs is driving a convergence between the tech, health services, and pharmaceutical and life sciences industries.
- Leverage data to target interventions, communications and outreach strategies to the right patients, thus driving patient engagement, improving outcomes and lowering costs.
- Convene regional collaborations of health systems, medical researchers, community organisations, pharmacies, government, local employers and tech to help generate insights from health, consumer and social determinants data to identify trends, target interventions and drive smart outreach strategies.
- Develop a data-driven culture in which information is transformed into insights.
Evolving clinical trials
The pandemic’s disruption of existing in-person clinical trials forced the adoption of digital technology and remote-care tools that enable researchers to handle some aspects of trials virtually, including digital recruitment, remote visits by telehealth, and the use of home-based testing or monitoring technologies.
In the PwC Health Research Institute survey, 93% of pharmaceutical and life sciences executives said trials that include digital elements were important to their company’s pipeline in the next five years, and 66% of respondents in the PwC global health consumer survey said they would be very or somewhat willing to engage in digital clinical trials.
Positive experiences during COVID-related trials undoubtedly increased enthusiasm for incorporating digital components into trials when feasible.
- Determine the right studies for new models, identify and prioritise appropriate disease areas and, in the case of decentralised trials, examine the feasibility of running studies in unconventional locations that can adequately facilitate patient visits, drug storage and biospecimen collection.
- Weigh the costs and savings of trials. Trials that feature remote tools for some patient interactions and monitoring create savings in a number of areas, including those associated with onsite monitoring and management.
- Address consumer concerns. In the PwC global health consumer survey, 23% of respondents said they are unwilling or somewhat unwilling to take part in remote trials. Among the reasons were trust concerns (30%), time commitment (21%) and health concerns (20%).
- Increase participant diversity by decentralising the locations for studies.
Developing supply chain resiliency
The pandemic shone a harsh spotlight on supply chain weaknesses. The focus in 2021 will be on building flexibility and redundancy into the supply chain—work that not only prepares industry players for the next public health crisis but builds a buffer against other disruptions. This work produces a host of other positive outcomes, including job creation and ESG benefits through appropriate localisation of manufacturing and the supply chain.
- Consider supply localisation. Factors such as risk and resilience, development of a broader ecosystem, cost-benefit analysis, tax incentives, and talent availability should be considered for the short and long term, and organisations should build in agility with redundant infrastructure.
- Build partnerships that enable innovation, foster supply chain resilience and advance product distribution.
- Invest in the workforce of the future that understands the technology and the power of data, including AI and machine learning that increasingly pervade the supply chain.
A brighter future
To be sure, healthcare organisations face much uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic continues more than a year after it began. They continue to grapple with a series of demands, each of which in isolation would be a major challenge. They have to operate with a deadly pathogen in their midst, conduct a massive immunisation drive, catch up on deferred preventive and elective care, and manage normal healthcare demand. Still, going back to the same old way of doing business is not an option.
Healthcare organisations have the opportunity to build on the lessons they learned in 2020 by establishing a stronger footing on the balance between in-person and virtual care; embracing digital technologies and analytics to improve operations, clinical trials, preventive health and patient care; and taking steps to strengthen their supply chains. Healthcare organisations that do so will grow stronger, more resilient, and more effective from the clinical and business perspectives in 2021 and beyond.
Reimagining healthcare as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis gives us the opportunity to deliver better health outcomes to all, with more sustainable and affordable costs—truly a silver lining from the pandemic’s dark clouds.