Healthcare Trends in 2021: Moving From Headlines into Practice

Following one of the most challenging years the healthcare industry has ever faced, 2021 brought different obstacles — shifting the conversation about vitally important healthcare trends from headlines into practice. 

While there is still a great deal of work to be done, progress was made around health equity and social determinants of health (SDOH), and an important shift is taking place around behavioral health, with more organizations realizing the importance of considering behavioral health when discussing whole-person care.

Throughout 2021, the industry also saw the continued rise of the healthcare consumer, and healthcare organizations of all types are determining how to most effectively deliver the consumer-centric experience that people expect.   

It’s been a difficult year for healthcare, but also one full of growth, leading the industry into an exciting 2022.

Advancing health equity 

The COVID-19 pandemic placed the topic of health equity squarely in the spotlight, and it was unsurprisingly one of the top healthcare trends of the year. Following a year where the topic of health inequities was headline news, in 2021, forward-thinking organizations took this opportunity to develop or refine their health equity strategic priorities.

Here at Get Well, we started 2021 announcing our acquisition of Docent Health, and through its artificial intelligence-enabled SMS text-based platform, we have doubled down on our promise of helping healthcare organizations provide personalized health for all people and ensure health equity across all populations. 

In August, Dr. Alisahah Jackson, System Vice President of Population Health Innovation and Policy at CommonSpirit Health, and Royal Tuthill, General Manager of Docent Health at Get Well, came together for a webinar on this topic.

Together, they discussed strategies for leveraging data and artificial intelligence to more effectively engage patients. They also discussed the importance of ensuring digital health equity and shared how navigation services can empower patients to better manage their own care needs.

In December, a White House Call to Action on reducing maternal mortality and morbidity reiterated the importance of maternal health equity, and highlighted the work being done by CommonSpirit Health in this area, using Get Well’s Docent solution. This partnership is a key component of the health system’s efforts to improve length of stay and preterm birth outcomes. 

Exploring the impact of social determinants of health

As the industry continued to unpack the intricacies of addressing health equity in 2021, it became clear that SDOH — those non-clinical factors that affect a person’s health — would be one of the most important healthcare trends in 2021, as they have a significant impact on health inequities, health disparities, and overall health outcomes. 

According to the Advisory Board, addressing SDOH now ranks 5th among 19 health system strategic priorities, and healthcare organizations are implementing initiatives aimed at ensuring that the specific care needs of traditionally underserved populations are addressed. 

The right SDOH screening questionnaire can intelligently recognize when escalation is needed and surface questions about transportation, food insecurity, or home safety to a human guide who will step in to answer the question and ensure needs are being met.

Still, gaps remain. In particular, as COVID-19 vaccines became available in 2021, the nation saw the same barriers to access and health inequities that drove an increase in COVID-19 cases among underserved communities, presenting access challenges regarding the vaccine

That’s why digital vaccine outreach programs have been created to facilitate vaccine access in places of need, such as including California’s Central Coast and the areas of Arkansas served by leading health system CommonSpirit Health. Initiatives like these help to address social determinants of health before they create further health inequities. 

A defining moment for behavioral health

This past year was also a year of reckoning for behavioral health. With behavioral health needs skyrocketing amid the COVID-19 pandemic and jumping to the top of the list of critical healthcare trends, digital health technology that can weave in behavioral health components to clinical care plans and help scale the human element of healthcare can be an invaluable tool for health systems. This allows providers, nurses, and other staff to practice at the top of their licenses while ensuring patients receive the support they need.

Earlier this year, Sutter Health™ began leveraging Docent’s healthcare consumer engagement platform for Scout by Sutter Health™, a new virtual patient navigation platform that supports youth ages 12 to 26 years old who experience anxiety or depression. Using a combination of artificial intelligence-driven digital and human touchpoints, the platform delivers personalized web- and mobile-friendly content based on the participant’s responses to questions to support their unique needs.

Embracing the healthcare consumer

Throughout 2021, one thing became abundantly clear: today’s consumers are looking for something different from their healthcare journey. With people hungry for a healthcare experience that more closely resembles the experiences they have with other industries — banking, travel, and food delivery, to name a few — healthcare is trying to catch up. 

As people increasingly seek greater control over their healthcare, organizations need a strategy for delivering on the promise of personalized, consumer-centric care. 

A recent webinar discussing consumerism in healthcare explained both where the industry is and where it needs to go to best meet consumer expectations. 

Diving deeper into the issue of healthcare consumerism, we also explored the history of consumerism outside the healthcare industry and detailed how healthcare can use consumer-driven digital technology to enhance the patient experience. 

Although we know that 85% of patients already bring their own smartphone or tablet with them for a hospital stay, many hospitals still struggle to activate patients, driving home the importance of mobile-first bring-your-own-device strategies

For facilities doing this, the results are significant. Patients are completing education content on their mobile devices at 2x (or more) the rate of TVs. They are also completing content like service requests at nearly 3x the rate on their mobile devices compared to TVs. 

While patient-centric, mobile-first strategies certainly bring an enhanced patient engagement experience to health systems that might not otherwise have the resources to invest in smart TVs or other more expensive technology, forward-thinking organizations of all types and with any size budget should consider the benefits of such an approach.

Comprehensive digital patient engagement solutions offered on mobile devices provide a seamless experience for every patient and their family, personalized to their healthcare needs and reaching them across a full episode of care, as well as in between episodes. This enables organizations to reach a wider population while elevating outcomes and reducing unnecessary costs.

The bottom line

The healthcare industry faced unprecedented challenges in 2021. From increased clinical pressures in a global pandemic to high staffing turnover to shifting organizational priorities, many of the paths were new and uncharted. 

At the same time, however, an increasing focus on healthcare trends like health equity, maternal health, and behavioral health helped crystallize the focus of health systems on things that truly matter but have perhaps been overlooked in the past. It was a year of rapid change, and a pace that looks to continue into 2022.