- The pandemic supercharged the scope of the issues the healthcare industry was already grappling with.
- Rather than revert to normal, the industry has the potential to reimagine itself to lead to better patient and business outcomes.
- Top areas to focus on include virtual care model equilibrium, enhanced data analytics, innovation in clinical trials and supply chain resiliency.
It’s time to reimagine healthcare. Almost overnight, the industry responded swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic, moving to virtual platforms and implementing digital technologies in order to serve patients unable to attend in person, collaborate on medical response, and shore up supply chains.
A new PwC report, Global Top Health Industry Issues 2021, looks at four transformations in the industry that, already affecting the ecosystem prior to COVID-19, were given a boost by its onset. These changes, when viewed in the context of seeking a new normal, lead to one conclusion — reverting to how healthcare was before the pandemic is not an option.
By applying the lessons and innovations learned during the crisis, healthcare can build a more resilient and dynamic system that is more open to possibilities and more effective from clinical and business perspectives, all while providing better experiences and outcomes for patients.
Virtual care pre- and post-pandemic
The pandemic forced an immediate halt to most in-person, non-urgent care, resulting in the quick uptake of virtual healthcare. Before COVID-19, the majority of respondents (60 percent of Australians, 58 percent globally) had never experienced virtual care.
However, during the pandemic, 39 percent of Australian respondents received non-video care — such as telehealth, email, texting or an app — with a further 15 percent via video, with similar figures reported globally. The incidence of virtual healthcare delivery remains at a significantly higher level than pre-pandemic,1 and it is likely that demand will remain high, even as the world recovers. Eighty-three percent of global survey respondents said they would be still willing to use telehealth to receive care, with an equally strong 81 percent of Australians agreeing.
Advances in technology and consumer desire for the better experience of receiving more convenient care is expected to continue driving the adoption of virtual care to a level that disrupts the traditional care delivery system. Healthcare organisations must therefore develop forward-looking virtual care strategies that address both patient and business needs and invest in the capability required to bridge the gap between demand and the capacity to deliver.
For hospitals, the challenge will be in determining the right mix of virtual and in-person care, while for some specialties, such as chronic disease management and mental health, there may be a better fit for more extensive virtual care going forward. All providers must of course take into account vulnerable populations who may be unable to make use of digital options.
Collaborative data analytics
Some healthcare organisations found it difficult to access the basic information they needed to respond to the pandemic in its early stages, from the number of patients presenting at emergency departments with COVID-19–like symptoms, to the availability of Personal Protective Equipment and supplies. Real-time data streams combined with dynamic data analysis and forecasting systems would have helped immensely with the initial response — and, at least in Australia, significant investment is now being put into these systems to prepare for future public health emergencies. Globally, such efforts should be embraced in order to deliver better health outcomes with more sustainable, affordable long-term costs.
An ecosystem view is required for such a concept to work — no one organisation has access to all types of data. From hospitals and doctors to pharmaceutical companies, technology giants or community organisations, differing goals need to be aligned to cross-sector collaborations, with clear value propositions for each in order to gain buy-in. Such collaborations can be seen in the unprecedented cooperation and data sharing between governments, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers in addressing the pandemic.
To make use of such data sets, analytical tools are needed to drive therapeutic discoveries, improve patient care, create a better patient experience and generate savings through innovation and improved operations. Additionally, AI and machine learning applied to data analytics across the industry will accelerate the shift towards personalised and genetic medicine, individualised medical care and personal wellness.
Evolving clinical trials
Pharmaceutical companies that invested in digital innovation before the pandemic fared better than others during the COVID-19 crisis and it holds true that clinical trials that include digital tools, remote patient monitoring/virtual interaction and home participation are likely to attract more participants due to increased convenience.
Sixty-three percent of Australian respondents (66 percent globally) expressed a willingness to engage in remote clinical trials with such features, and indeed, expressed comfort with the elements that such trials would involve (technology, signing up, virtual conversations, remote monitoring etc). Those not willing to participate in trials cited a lack of trust and fear of the unknown as key reasons why, indicating that institutions may need to engage in messaging to address consumer concerns.
Moreover, digital and virtual tools tend to attract a broader diversity of patients, such as those with a lack of proximity to a central hospital or clinic, and with reduced travel times, these trials could boost enrolment among typically underserved populations such as remote, low-income and minority populations.
Ninety-eight percent of pharmaceutical and life sciences executives surveyed in a recent PwC Health Research Institute survey said that they expected digital investment in clinical trials to increase in the next year, and 93 percent said trials that include digital elements were important to their pipeline in the next five. Such investments will accelerate the adoption of digitally enabled tools and processes in the industry.
Supply chain resiliency
The pandemic laid bare weaknesses in critical healthcare supply chains across the globe. Shortages in supportive care drugs, APIs, ventilators and personal protective equipment became evident very early on due to an overreliance on certain markets.2 Going forward, for those that haven’t yet addressed the issue, a focus on building flexibility and redundancy into supply chains will be required, both to prepare industry for future crises, but also as a buffer against disruptions in general.*
For pharmaceutical manufacturers, it will be necessary to proactively map suppliers of essential goods to determine whether they come from regions prone to disruption. If so, secondary manufacturers should be identified and secure — ideally, in a different geographic location. This redundancy will allow for continuation of production quickly if one source becomes blocked, with regulatory approval, supplier qualification and equipment already in place.
A resilient supply chain is an efficient one, and increased automation and advanced manufacturing practices (such as 3D and continuous manufacturing) will drive this. Investment in data analytics to improve efficiency — via tracking supplies, identifying waste, ensuring quality/safety and driving innovation will be key.
Finally, to avoid a repeat of 2020’s shortages, hospitals should explore non-traditional relationships through joint ventures, partnerships or nontraditional contracting, to create supply chain redundancy.
To good health
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over and healthcare organisations face continued challenges. Not only must they operate under the spectre of a deadly pathogen, they must also conduct a massive immunisation rollout, catch up on deferred care and manage the day to day healthcare of the population.
Going back to the way things were before the pandemic, however, is not an option. By learning from the lessons of the last year there is an opportunity to grow stronger, more resilient and more effective — and to be able to deliver better, more sustainable and affordable outcomes to all.
* It’s important to note that many organisations, particularly in Australia, have already made great progress in this area. As a global issue however, there is still work to be done.