The future of digital health in a post-COVID world
What needs to stay, and what needs to change
July 15, 2021

With over 330 million vaccinations administered at the time of this publishing, 56 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccine shot, and 48 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. 

While these numbers do not mean that we’re in the clear yet—especially as news rises about the Delta variant—many providers, health plans, and health systems are beginning to look toward a post-COVID future and wonder just how to navigate a torn, tired, and still politically-charged healthcare system. 

How each organization chooses to tackle the post-pandemic world will be different, but a few key principles for success will remain the same. Organizations—provider, payer, and more—will need to find ways to strengthen their digital care offerings, address the financial implications of the pandemic, and better prepare and safeguard their organizations for future crises. 

In each of these key objectives, digital health can play a key role in reaching those targets, improving the quality and cost of care, and bettering member and patient health outcomes. 

Strengthening digital care—post pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a catalyst for expanding telehealth and remote patient monitoring, with a December study published by the American Journal of Managed Care showing that telehealth claims rose a striking 2980 percent from 2019 to 2020. In addition, remote patient monitoring use is expected to double in the coming years. 

While the pandemic may have sparked the increase in digital health offerings, the need for these offerings will not diminish as vaccine rates improve. A February 2021 poll conducted by the Medical Group Management Association showed that only 35 percent of surveyed providers felt the need for telehealth would decline following the pandemic, with 34 percent anticipating the same need for telehealth and the remaining 31 percent predicting an increase in digital health use. 

What will, however, need to change is the efficacy with which we deliver this digital care. Many of the digital health offerings we have today are still limited in their capacities—supporting members in actual telemedicine visits but lacking the follow-up necessary to ensure care plan adherence between visits. 

Telemedicine visits are, on average, 20 percent shorter than in-person visits, making it even more important to keep members engaged in care plan adherence and submitting regular check-ins between visits. Additional digital health platforms can help fill the gaps left by traditional virtual health—providing daily reminders to take prescribed medications, check glucometer readings, eat healthy, and more. 

In addition, by collecting these check-ins and readings and offering an incentive for adherence, adherence improves—reaching an average of over 90 percent adherence. This care plan adherence is especially important for supporting those with chronic conditions such as COPD, CHF, diabetes, behavioral health diagnoses, and more.

Finally, improving digital health offerings through smart-learning AI that can customize a member’s experience and journey delivers an even better standard of care that allows for affordable large-scale population health improvement through high-quality personalized, precision health tactics. The result? Both happier, and healthier, members. 

Addressing the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare through digital health 

The financial repercussions of the pandemic varied across healthcare providers, payers, and systems.

The financial repercussions of 2020 vary—with many for-profit health plans reporting record profits as members avoided hospitals and physicians out of fear of coming in contact with the COVID-19 virus. However, for others, the story was different. 

For example, Humana reported a significant Q4 loss as a result of an increase in COVID-19-related hospital visits, and many providers and health systems saw significant losses as elective procedures were temporarily halted. This year, the AHA predicts that losses between $53 billion and $122 billion could continue as a result of residual COVID-19 impacts. 

Whether negatively impacted by the pandemic or not, the success of our country’s healthcare system moving forward will depend on stakeholders across the care continuum being willing to work together to reduce costs of care and bring everyone back into the green—starting with reducing unnecessary care costs. 

According to the CDC, chronic condition care currently accounts for 90 percent of our national healthcare spend—totaling $3.8 trillion dollars annually. Of this, a larger percentage goes toward preventable, unnecessary high-cost utilization such as readmissions, ED utilization, and inpatient stays. 

In fact, every year in inpatient stays alone, the U.S. spends
  • $33 billion in avoidable adult inpatient stays 
  • $516 million in avoidable pediatric stays
  • 77 percent of these adult stays are for patients with chronic conditions
  • 61 percent of these pediatric stays are for patients with chronic conditions 

Targeting high-cost utilization reduction for chronic care populations provides a win for both health plans and providers—and improves patient health. Government and organizational value-based care efforts have been working for years to reduce such utilization, yet we’re running into industry-wide stumbling blocks as even our best efforts inside clinic doors fall short when it comes to motivating members to do their part in reducing such utilization through stricter care plan adherence. 

Leveraging digital health to keep members on-track with their care plans between visits can improve adherence and create lasting behavior changes that continue long after the digital health programs end. When members are able to self-manage their chronic conditions, those conditions improve. As one Wellth program member shares: 

“I liked being very responsible for taking my meds and remembering myself, even before the alarm goes off. When I saw the reminders on my phone, I would tell myself, ‘You better take your meds!’ This program has taught me to grow and make decisions, make sure I was on time and double check that I took my meds.” 

The best part? 

The benefits of improved self-management go beyond member satisfaction or confidence. They directly impact high cost utilization as well. 

Desert Oasis Healthcare, a medical group in Palm Springs, California, utilized the Wellth program to increase adherence in members with type 2 diabetes.

Just four months into the scheduled year-long program, the results were notable, including:

  • 95 percent average daily adherence 
  • 59 percent reduction in ED utilization
  • 40 percent reduction in acute encounters 
  • 74 percent reduction in per member per month filed claims

Read the full Desert Oasis case study, including clinical results, here.

Preparing organizations and members for future crises 

Stomatologist in light PPE consults with patient

While the word “unprecedented” became commonplace in almost every article about the pandemic, the truth is: pandemics are more common than we think. 

Our global medical history is patterned by pandemics, with the H2N2 virus of 1957-1958, the H3N2 virus of 1968, and the H1N1 virus all taking place within the last sixty years in the U.S. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has lasted longer, reached wider and received more media coverage and notoriety, many of its consequences are things we are likely to see in other, smaller, pandemics in the future. For example, the vulnerability that members with chronic conditions face whenever a pandemic hits, large or small, is something that will remain a constant. As a result, preparing for the future requires ensuring now that we have ways of staying connected with members and establishing adherence outside traditional clinical walls. 

When we have the right technology in place, we can come back from this pandemic wiser and more prepared. Implementing strategies and platforms for maintaining daily check-ins and ensuring continued medication adherence ultimately allows us to maintain our standards of connection and care, and support members—whenever the next crisis hits.