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The year(s) ahead: Eight imperatives emerging post-pandemic

Health Evolution identified where leaders can focus to transform into stronger, more equitable and sustainable enterprises serving wider patient populations with a new standard of care services — and begin doing so immediately.

Richard Schwartz | March 31, 2021

The U.S. is a full year into the most destructive and deadly pandemic in a century, combined with social, financial and political upheaval, and key indicators are now suggesting the world is nearing a turning point.

Despite some stumbling blocks, the national vaccination strategy is working to slow infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths. Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are increasing production and publicly stating that will continue well into 2021 if not longer.

As CEOs develop strategies for thriving in a post-pandemic world, living safely with COVID-19 will, naturally, be a top priority. But health system, health plan and life sciences CEOs, top executives and thought leaders will simultaneously face multiple legacy-defining transformations, including modernizing the health care system itself, addressing long-standing inequities and affordability challenges, as well as leveraging data, technology and medical breakthroughs, all at a faster pace of innovation and adoption than was thought possible as recently as early 2020. 

To inform such post-COVID19 strategies, Health Evolution outlined the following Eight Imperatives Emerging Post-Pandemic:

    • Strengthening system resilience
    • Escalating health equity
    • Confronting the mental health crisis
    • Optimizing new care modalities
    • Engaging health consumers
    • Realizing medical breakthroughs
    • Securing data advantage
    • Addressing affordability

What follows is a brief look at the criticality of each imperative and the foundational actions necessary to directionally advance toward achieving a stronger, more equitable and sustainable health care system.    

Strengthening system resilience
“The U.S. health care system is broken.” Well before the pandemic, that cry was considered cliché and for good reason. From forward-looking CEOs to startup innovators and tech stalwarts looking to disrupt the industry, executives advanced that agenda in thought leadership and massive marketing campaigns. COVID-19, in fact, has since exposed even further weaknesses in the system itself and served as a call to arms for leaders to form cross-sector arrangements and partnerships to strengthen the system to avoid the catastrophe of COVID-19 when the next pandemic strikes.

    • Necessary foundational actions: Applying policy and public health pandemic lessons, bolstering surveillance, coordination, surge capacity, and supply chain as well as addressing future workforce needs.

Escalating health equity
A critical aspect of the broken health care system has been two-fold: Wide disparities in the care delivered to ethnic and minority populations and the lack of diversity in health care leadership ranks. The myriad racial and social injustice crises of 2020-2021 have catalyzed a need to begin addressing the issues beyond simply paying them lip service. That will requires CEOs to undertake concerted initiatives to improve diversity, equity and inclusion among their patient populations and employee base alike.

    • Necessary foundational actions: Applying urgency to advancing diversity and inclusion, addressing socioeconomic health drivers, and eliminating demographic health disparities.

Confronting the mental health crisis
Even before the pandemic, the United States was facing alarming rises in such mental and behavioral health concerns as anxiety and depression, addiction disorders, memory disorders, and corresponding “deaths of despair.” This past year has served as an accelerant and the current mental health system is ill-positioned to respond – poorly funded, woefully inadequate supply, separated from physical health care, with even wider variations in care and lower adoption of best practices.

    • Necessary foundational actions: Redressing widening gaps in mental and behavioral health access, improving measurement, and surfacing and adopting advances in intervention and integrating care.

Optimizing new care modalities
As a matter of essential safety, health care organizations virtualized workforces and care delivery literally overnight during the pandemic. Operating in virtual environments, providers also increased telehealth utilization and remote patient monitoring and moved more care into the home. Maintaining a seamless hybrid experience between virtual and in-person care will be critical to the future of care delivery.  

    • Necessary foundational actions: Leveraging and integrating remote technologies and home-based care, ensuring right care in right settings and top-of-license clinician deployment to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Engaging health consumers
Whether described as an improved patient experience or the move toward consumer-centric care, health providers and plans, not to mention multitudes of technology innovators, were working to engage patients to take more control over their own health well before the pandemic. Notably, efforts to engage health consumers have and will continue to focus on activating behavior changes by meeting patients where they live, work, play and worship.

    • Necessary foundational actions: Understanding emerging segments, behavioral drivers, and individual preferences and crafting compelling offerings to secure “of choice” status amid heightened competition.

Realizing medical breakthroughs
The word of the pandemic may very well be “accelerated,” as in the deployment of technology, adapting new business practices, virtualizing workforces. The most impactful acceleration of all came in the form of vaccine development that yielded at least three proven COVID-19 vaccines. Those happened so rapidly, in fact, that development was far in front of distribution efforts, thereby setting the stage for a future wherein executives will need to prepare their organizations for medications, digital therapeutics and other treatments coming into being at a faster pace than ever before.

    • Necessary foundational actions: Developing more precise clinical insights and interventions, expediting clinical trials, leveraging real world evidence, and paying for new diagnostics and therapies.

Securing data advantage
Health care has long had a multi-faceted data problem: Difficulty collecting relevant data at the right time, challenges in sharing information at scale, incentives to consider it proprietary and thus a lack of using advanced analytics to glean insights within the data. Having spent the last two decades or more watching while the retail industry has mastered the power of data, the time has come for health care executives to harness all the data they own and have access to as much information as possible via partnerships.

    • Necessary foundational actions: Leveraging data and data partnerships to drive improved outcomes and efficiencies, maximizing data security, and ensuring patient privacy and truly informed consent.

Addressing affordability
Ultimately health care will never be truly equitable, and sustainability for all but the largest enterprises will continue to be difficult, until the U.S. system makes substantive strides toward improving affordability. Such efforts have thus far proven challenging, with risk stratification and value-based payments happening at a smaller scale than what is necessary to drive impactful change across the industry. As COVID-19 rattled fee-for-service reimbursement models and illustrated the power of value-based arrangements, CEOs leading into post-pandemic world consider multiple financial strategies moving into that future.

    • Necessary foundational actions: Bending the cost curve in earnest, amid competing priorities, aligning incentives and payment models to realize true economies and win-wins at scale, and protecting the vulnerable from untenable tradeoffs.

Next on the horizon
Health care leaders who address the Eight Imperatives will rise out of the pandemic stronger, more equitable and financially sustainable with integrated physical and behavioral health services to protect vulnerable and underserved communities in addition to the patient populations they have traditionally served.

Health Evolution will continue to address these Eight Imperatives in the months and years ahead through our industry leading gatherings, starting with the Health Evolution Confab April 13-15 and Town Hall on April 15, as well as our Summit August 25-27 in Laguna, the year-round set of Forum Roundtables and Work Groups, and our weekly Health Evolution Insider digital publication.

About the Author

Richard Schwartz, Author

Richard Schwartz served as Executive Officer of the Advisory Board Company from 2002 to 2018, where he led the health care practice as Chief Operating Officer. In that capacity he was responsible for expanding the firm’s capabilities – spanning research, consulting, and data/analytic software services – bringing them to bear on 4,000+ member organizations’ most pressing issues and driving strong results. More recently Richard has been providing consulting services to a range of firms from PE and other investment companies to health care and media companies. Prior to joining the Advisory Board, Richard worked at a boutique consulting firm advising Fortune 100-size companies on policy issues, a bio-technology center, and a policy think-tank. He received a B.A. degree from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from Duke University.