In our pseudo free-market health system, where a considerable portion of costs are covered with public funds, and where the largest public payor initiates changes that are then emulated by commercial payors and, likewise, where government entities heavily regulate healthcare’s techniques and technologies, politicians have intervened to force changes. With healthcare being a major topic of the last several elections and a top priority for President Obama during one of his two terms (as it was for President Clinton, though his primary initiatives in healthcare didn’t pass), it’s no surprise that the current administration also would like to impart change. President Trump is now working to alter some of what the Obama administration put into place. This move creates more uncertainty and requires change. I think everyone agrees on a defined set of goals for the industry, known as the triple aim (better outcomes, lower costs, improved experience), but the path to achieving those goals is wildly variable depending on your political position.
Unfortunately these required changes have placed the industry in turmoil. In an effort to modernize its technology, EHRs have been forced between providers and patients to ensure better, more consistent data collection. Ideally, this move should reduce medical errors and redundant tests, however, the government missed a massive opportunity here when it spent north of $40B on incentives to increase digitization of medical records — EHR software that wasn’t built to reduce medical errors, unnecessary tests or even improve clinician communication or data sharing across providers that would ensure continuity of care. At the same time, government financial incentives prompted a change to healthcare services to ensure quality. Yet, most of these quality initiatives didn’t go far enough and consequently increased data reporting burdens for clinicians. Meanwhile, payments for the majority of healthcare services have been reduced, squeezing provider margins and changing the rules for how providers are paid.
Healthcare hasn’t improved for consumers. During appointments, providers struggle to connect because they have screens, not patients, in front of them. Insurance coverage has gotten worse; choices have been reduced and the complexity of bills and payor communications to consumers more complex. How much worse have things become? I have an MD, MBA, and MS. I run a healthcare company with ~50 employees and have been writing and speaking on healthcare and healthcare technology for ten years. My wife and many of my friends are practicing physicians; some are my physicians. Yet, I woefully struggle to understand my medical bills, choices in providers, and generally how to navigate our broken system.
Where does that leave healthcare going into 2018? I’d argue that healthcare, if anything, is worse today than it was a year ago. The government, individuals, and private sector will certainly continue pushing for more changes in 2018. Given that, I predict we’ll see a few major healthcare trends as we move through the new year.
Subscription / direct pay / cash-based practices
Consumers, with minimal choice in healthcare, find it difficult to speak with their wallets or their feet. Similarly, providers have even fewer options. It’s no wonder that subscription medicine and cash-based medical practices are growing in popularity for both providers and patients (more on that below). These care models align incentives and are transparent. Geared towards those who have the ability to pay extra for better services, today, the majority of these care models bank on the pocketbooks of the middle to upper class. However, emerging data sets show the success of this model is also possible for underserved populations, as well. Learn more about what I think will happen with cash-pay practices in 2018.
The gravy train of meaningful use (MU) is over. The effect of MU was a significant, artificial, driver of adoption for a few EHRs. Today, digital health records are the standard. As we move through 2018, keep an eye on EHRs and how they justify their ROI once massive capital expenditures are written down. Likewise, you’ll want to consider how clinicians adjust to this brave new world. Read more about my 2018 predictions for the post-EHR world.
Clinicians as developers
The EHR wave of health IT left out clinicians. EHR and IT vendors drove those early technology decisions. Now, with software eating the world, clinicians are acting like software developers and corporate innovators in helping to design and, in some cases, build new technology and technology-enabled services for their colleagues and their patients.
The real cloud
HIMSS 2018, the largest health technology conference on the planet, will for the first time see the behemoth booths of EHR vendors challenged by the equally massive booths of public cloud service providers like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. This is the canary in the coalmine moment for healthcare, not just for the adoption of the real cloud over simple virtualization, but also in the fragmentation of infrastructure and services managed by third parties for healthcare delivery organizations.
Beyond digital health hype
Digital health has been hyped for a long time as a savior for healthcare. Unfortunately, healthcare is not that simple and no savior exists to untangle us from our current mess of a system. Technology, for technology’s sake, is not going to fix healthcare. While we’ve witnessed incredible enthusiasm around new technologies disrupting healthcare, we’re also now seeing some public failures, like the recent acquisition/fire sale of Practice Fusion, or the Castlight Health initial public offering hype and valuation assumptions compared to the market reality of today. Similar to EHRs, digital health now must prove it’s worth if it’s going to have sticking power.
Blockchain to the rescue
Speaking of hype, blockchain has made its way into healthcare. Smart contracts, immutability, and a clear audit trail — hallmarks of blockchain technology — hold much promise for healthcare data and exchange. The problem is that technology, especially when it comes to data sharing and interoperability in healthcare, is not the dominant roadblock. Layering in new technology, like blockchain, leaves the fundamental organizational and political problems unsolved.
I’ll focus on each of these trends in subsequent posts, distilling all of these healthcare trends down into one larger narrative: post-EHR healthcare is finally ready and incented to start making the necessary changes that will align with the triple aim. Massive organizations will vie for their place in this new healthcare world; some will win and others won’t. The winners will be the providers AND the patients.