Remember – just three short but world-changing months ago – when many of us were at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. The date was January 13th, 2020. Coronavirus was a problem in China, of vague interest – perhaps like SARS, unlikely to have a big impact in the U.S. Our community of healthcare executives, investors, and entrepreneurs were once again gathering in San Francisco. And the adoption of digital health? Well, there was still more talk than action.
The arguments for funding digital health had always been compelling. For starters, digital performance had been the deciding factor defining the success or failure of firms across many other industries like finance and retail. Moreover, the digital health landscape had exploded significantly over the last decade, led by investors’ confidence in the technology – since 2010, $58 billion has been invested in the digital health sector. As solutions matured, the risk of deploying digital decreased. Solutions to increase convenience, improve the patient experience, and automate routine tasks now had proven results. A few of the leading companies had even launched hugely successful IPOs.
Beyond these industry trends, investing in digital also made good strategic and financial sense. Investments in bricks and mortar, like new towers or sites of care, we’re no longer delivering expected financial returns. Digital could extend a health system’s geographic reach in a far more capital-efficient way. Substituting digital capital for labor would also yield more healthy and sustainable margins, critical in a challenging reimbursement environment.
There was also the looming specter of a big competition. Amazon, Google, Wal-Mart, and others were eying healthcare’s $3.5 trillion markets and planning to use their digital capabilities and assets to deliver a more convenient and affordable care experience.
But in January 2020, despite these compelling arguments, digital still inspired discussion and debate, not investment and action. Leaders and boards of directors worriedly asked, “how might physicians respond to these changes?” “How will digital solutions impact near-term revenue?” “How will we fund these solutions?” “How will these solutions integrate with our EMR?” And they dithered.
Fast forward to today. It’s incredible how quickly the world has changed in 90 days. This is true in the economy, our personal lives, and especially true in digital health. The magnitude of the change is best encapsulated in an image that popped up on my Twitter account in the last week.
The genie is out of the bottle. Telehealth has gone from a rarely used employee benefit to a widely adopted method for routine low acuity visits or high-risk patients who need to avoid exposure to crowded and potentially infectious clinical locations. One health system executive shared with me that his system had conducted more video-based visits in one week in March than in the entire prior year. Virtual health vendors have been closing on multiple health system contracts a day, obliterating the typical sales cycle of 12 months or more.
Many health systems have implemented more digital health solutions in the last 2 weeks than in the prior 2 years. Futuristic pipe dreams like 3D printing are now happening in real-time, as hospitals creatively solve for PPE shortages. Remote monitoring is providing a lifeline in surging hospitals, allowing providers to monitor COVID-19 patients at home. Health system IT departments have worked around the clock to stand up new capabilities in days rather than weeks and months.
Leaders are no longer debating digital. It’s is the right tool to fight this pandemic, and it has a clear, strategic place in the post-COVID-19 world. The business case is being made now. Digital solutions deliver care with greater scale and flexibility than health systems ever could through traditional means. It would take years for a health system to build the capacity to double the number of patients served. With the right digital assets, that same service capacity can be increased in days by leveraging a virtual network of physicians and increasing cloud storage space.
Finally, it is now abundantly clear that digital solutions can offer health systems a more sustainable operating model. Healthcare employment growth, especially amongst non-clinical staff, has been a big driver of increasing costs over the past few years. The big drops in elective procedure volumes are putting huge pressure on health system margins. As a result, many systems are taking a very serious look at their administrative cost bases and how digital tools such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) could perform routine repeatable tasks in a more cost-efficient manner.
In the coming weeks and months, the first and most appropriate priority is responding to the COVID-19 crisis, not revamping the business model of healthcare to more fully leverage the power of digital capabilities. But that reckoning is coming. As coronavirus case volumes reach their peaks and begin to decline, it will be important for health systems to ask themselves these critical business questions:
1. How did the COVID-19 pandemic irreversibly change consumer behaviors and expectations?
2. What new care models deployed to manage COVID and non-COVID cases should be maintained in a New Normal operating environment?
3. How should we shore up our operating models to support improved financial sustainability?
4. How do we ensure operational readiness to deal with the pandemics of the future, including a potential surge in COVID in the fall?
Invariably, digital will play a prominent role in answering each of these questions. Our future health depends on it.
About Eric Jensen