By Neal Batra, principal, and David Betts, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP for the Deloitte Health Forward Blog

Is the COVID-19 pandemic pushing us closer to the future of health, or is it pulling us back? We would argue that it’s a little of both. In some respects, the pandemic is causing the health sector to leap one or two innovation cycles ahead in a remarkably short amount of time. But in other areas, forward momentum has stalled or stopped completely.

The public health emergency is highlighting some of the weaknesses in the health system, pushing capacity to the brink, and testing the very definition of wellness. Over the past several months, consumers have come to understand that the idea of being healthy goes beyond avoiding a COVID-19 infection. The lock-down most of us are enduring has made it clear that our mental well-being is just as important as our physical health. Moreover, trust in the health system has been diminished in the eye of the consumer. As economies begin to open, many people remain leery about going to a medical facility for care that had been deferred.

When we developed our vision for the future of health two years ago, we never anticipated the industry would follow a straight line to the year 2040. While the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed the world we described, it has altered the path that will likely take us there.

Consumers are moving to the center of the health system

In the US—and around the world—health systems were designed to respond to physical ailments. But treating illnesses and injuries should be secondary to helping people improve or maintain their well-being. When you talk to consumers, it becomes clear they tend to view health as broader, deeper, and more holistic. It includes physical and mental health—in addition to social, emotional, spiritual, and even financial health.

The pandemic has amplified consumer expectations for the health system. Consumers want to engage with the health system differently than they have in the past. As consumers continue to move toward the center of the health care system, they are starting to ask themselves two important questions: 

  • How do we navigate health care systems that aren’t really set up to keep us healthy?
  • How do we mobilize and participate in physical and virtual communities that can promote our collective health?

Here’s a look at five other issues the pandemic could accelerate or decelerate:

  1. Connectivity: We are all generating health data without realizing it. Everything from the food that we buy to our online searches and purchases to the steps our watches and phones continuously count for us. All of this information is being recorded. We expect all of these data streams will eventually merge to create a highly detailed picture of our well-being. This explosion of health data will provide consumers with hyper-granular insight into their health in real-time. However, some people will worry about the use of personal devices that could be used to track movement in order to prevent disease spread.
  2. Radical interoperability: We expect that interoperability will advance more quickly in the wake of the pandemic as health care and life sciences organizations realize the value of combining patient data in new ways. Radically interoperable data promises to let consumers own their personal health information and share it with stakeholders (in real time) through open and secure platforms. In early March, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released final rules for interoperability. The rules establish standards and requirements for application programming interfaces (APIs) to support patient access and control of electronic health information (EHI). In response to the pandemic, many institutions have become more willing to share data to mitigate pandemic spread. This has helped to create stronger links among public institutions, private industry, and even global entities. However, difficulty in accurately reporting infection rates and deaths related to the virus exposed weaknesses in data interoperability.
  3. Virtual health: Virtual health care has quickly become a significant part of the delivery system, with adoption about five years ahead of where we expected it would be in 2020. Shortly before the pandemic, a majority of health care executives predicted virtual health would alter the landscape over the next 20 years, according to a survey conducted by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). Stay-at-home mandates and risks (real and perceived) related to seeking in-person care have increased demand and adoption of virtual care. 
  4. Scientific breakthroughs: The pandemic has forced some researchers to rely more on digital technology for clinical trials, and we have seen an unprecedented level of collaboration among pharmaceutical companies to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and rapidly bring it to market. Some regulatory processes have been streamlined to make it easier to get diagnostic tests and therapies to market more quickly. But the pandemic might also have decelerated progress. Some clinical trials that had been underway might now have massive gaps in data because patients were unable to continue participation. Progress made during multi-year studies might have been undone. Some clinical trials that were derailed by the pandemic might never get back on track. 
  5. Health disparities: The pandemic continues to highlight the many disparities and inequities in the health sector. It remains to be seen if this is an accelerator or decelerator, but it has created awareness—and greater awareness can lead to change. It’s better than having it remain below the surface. In the future, health should go beyond ensuring equitable financing across the socioeconomic continuum. The future of health is about ensuring access to everyone. To do that, we should identify and eliminate any systemic racism in the health care system, and ensure technology is available to enable virtual care.

Over the past several months, the pandemic allowed us to pressure-test our vision for the future of health. It holds up remarkably well. While the path might have changed, our expected destination remains the same. Our health care system has changed little over the past 50 years, and the pandemic is revealing that the cracks in the system run deeper than we thought.

It seems to us that the traditional health care business models are on their way out, spurred by empowered consumers who will reward companies that keep them healthy. Incumbent players in the health care system should shift to a business model driven by data, analytics, and advanced technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence, interoperability, cloud, etc.). It will likely become increasingly difficult for analog businesses to thrive in a digital world. The pandemic has offered a glimmer of the winning models, and those are all empowered by advanced technologies. Our advice: Get in the technology game now!