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No surprise here: 2020’s chaos effectively set the 2021 agenda for health care CEOs  and the year ahead is already shaping up to be dauntingThe principal challenge, of course, will be addressing COVID-19 across multiple fronts.  

Reflecting on 2020, CEOs explained that health care organizations have exponentially expanded what it means to transform and embrace a future-ready mindset. As such, executives told Health Evolution that during the next 12 months they will continue operating with more virtualized workforces and care delivery services as well as deploying digital innovations to enable more affordable, consumer-centric and equitable health care beyond the pandemic. 

“I hope 2021 is known as a year of healing,” said Steve Barnett, President and CEO of McKenzie Health System. “We need to become less divided as a society and learn how to embrace what science can offer.”  

Achieving that, however necessary, will come neither easily nor quickly. Vaccine distribution is already happening more slowly than previously expected amid a tumultuous presidential administration transition. Despite promises that some 20 million Americans would receive the first round of a vaccine by 2020’s end, as of publication time just over 5 million people had been given the first of two shots. 

“We are anticipating challenges in finishing the world’s battle against COVID-19, but also increasing need and responsibility to continue to advance quality of life through quality of movement,” said Lou Shapiro, CEO, Hospital for Special Surgery 

To that end, Shapiro added that HSS, which in 2020 reduced its patient capacity by 85 percent to join forces with NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center during the pandemic, will leverage “an innovative digital platform,” to disseminate its knowledge and expertise across large populations of providers, payers, employers and consumers in the battle against COVID-19 this year.  

Digital health and virtualization more broadly will be foundational elements in 2021 for managing remote workforces, supporting virtual visits, improving care and delivering it to underserved people.  

We anticipate enduring market traction for virtual care and new digital care delivery models that leverage real-time insights and increasingly focus on convenience, customer experience, enhanced value, and care continuity,” said Brian Pieninck, CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield 

Successfully navigating a digitalized world will require CEOs to invest in their workforce to establish new skill sets for analytical and critical thinking to solve new and potentially unforeseen problems and to establish growth and development opportunities within the workforce.  

As many health care organizations virtualized their workforce, 2020 also witnessed an unexpected rise in virtual visits and telehealth utilization among patients. While utilization rates have since settled down, most remain above pre-pandemic levels and that is enabling new hybrid care models, according to Danielle Russella, President of Strategic Partnerships, Amwell.  

The big aspects that I see emerging are the hybrid care models around virtual primary care that fully integrate the physical and the virtual world in a very meaningful, immersive and continuous way. Another is the expanding role of connected devices in the home. There’s so much we can be doing in the home, where most of us want to access care,” Russella said in an article during December.  

Russella added that moving forward health care organizations will be creating more and more digital front doors often not even affiliated with a provider, health system or health plan.”  

Those digital front doors will open to, among other opportunities, more whole-person careNew models that are accountable for the total episode care and manage the entire patient are the future, said Cheryl Pegus, MD, Executive Vice President of Health and Wellness at Walmart said in an article published in September (at the time Pegus was serving as President & Chief Medical Officer of Cambia Consumer Health Solutions). 

“Technology solutions have to be part of our new toolkit for providing care,” Pegus said. “They not only help those who can’t afford multiple modalities, but really have an impact on those who have limited access because of where they live.”   

While many of the new care models emerging in 2021 are not likely to be fully realized by year’s end, embracing consumerism and transitioning to value-based care holds some promise to become competitive differentiators.  

also anticipate that more consumers of health care – individuals and businesses – will appreciate that quality varies widely among providers, and that more reliable providers can help minimize avoidable costs,” said Shapiro, adding that HSS will soon unveil a value transparency tool and invite all providers to adopt it.  

Building on 2020’s increased focus on digital health and consumerism, forward-looking experts suggested that the widespread revenue disruption experienced by providers heavily reliant on fee-for-service volumes could signal an increased drive toward value-based care.  

Consumers and employers who have been partial to broad PPO networks so as to offer the most freedom and flexibility to ‘members’ realized that when they really need to know which provider or health care system is caring for them and has their best interests in mind in times of crisis are rethinking that approach,” said Barry Arbuckle, President and 
CEO, MemorialCare Health System. Delegated or assigned networks with strong, well defined value-based alignment — including clinical quality, patient experience, contained cost  will prove to be superior to the consumer and the US health care system. 

Ultimately, COVID-19 advanced some of the CEOs top priorities more quickly than otherwise would have happened this year, as the list of top priorities we published in January 2020 before the coronavirus outbreak came to the U.S. focused on new care models, value-based care, consumerism, among others. Also presciently on that list? Changing quickly to avoid the risk of failure.

“As we enter a new year,” CareFirst’s Pieninck said, “we must remain focused on these issues and persist in our efforts to effect necessary change.”