By Dana Jacoby
If there’s any truth to the adage that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, then the battering the US health system suffered at the hands of the pandemic should have turned it into a veritable powerhouse. Instead, COVID-19 only served to highlight that the US healthcare system doesn’t actually operate as a system at all.
While systems are interconnected and coordinated, resources across US healthcare were woefully mismanaged during the pandemic — from the
desperately inefficient roll-out of the vaccination program to the fact that hospitals in Queens were overwhelmed by a deluge of sick patients despite there being nearly 3,500 vacant beds in hospitals in New York.
With the US healthcare ‘system’ in need of retooling, we are going to look at the five most prominent challenges that it needs to address in 2022 and beyond.
Perhaps the most fundamental change that arose as a result of the pandemic was the dramatically increased uptake of remote care. With social distancing minimizing face-to-face interactions, online medical consultations rocketed from a pre-pandemic level of 0.01% to nearly 45% overnight. While COVID-19 may have kick-started common use of the technology, it seems that telehealth may be here to stay, with 76% of the population viewing the technology as something they’d pursue in the future.
While this is undoubtedly a positive and efficient development, issues remain regarding the adoption of telehealth within certain sections of the population — specifically the elderly. With the elderly having the greatest need for medical resources, they’re also the section of the population least likely to adopt telehealth due to their unfamiliarity with the technologies and the personal uncertainties that arise as a result.
In a bid to acclimatize the elderly with the benefits of the technology, healthcare providers need to introduce programs that coordinate with an elderly patient’s family members. By involving the patient’s family in the process — and having them serve as technical as well as emotional support — we can hopefully witness a meaningful uptake of telemedicine in the section of the population that needs it the most.
Hand-in-hand with telemedicine comes the need for enhanced levels of security when handling a patient’s personal data. While the elderly may be anxious about adopting new technologies, there is widespread distrust among all age groups when it comes to the healthcare industry’s ability to effectively protect their personal information from data breaches.
As an increased volume of medical services is transferred online, the need to ensure that this digital realm is safe from hackers has never been more crucial. Unfortunately, effective investment in data security faces a number of complications that need to be resolved if US healthcare is to operate as a unified system.
Currently, healthcare technology developers need to comply with a set of industry guidelines on how medical data can be securely exchanged, known as the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard. While that’s all well and good, unfortunately, the FHIR standard comes in four different versions, which hardly makes it a standard at all. With different medical organizations using different versions, the safe exchange of data is an unnecessarily complex and challenging issue. With no consensus on which FHIR version should be adopted as the universal standard, data security problems are set to persist.
The healthcare system may be generating an ever-increasing amount of patient data, however, unless it’s stored, managed, and optimized in a single network, the potential health benefits that these data offer will go largely untapped.
With an AI’s ability to process huge amounts of healthcare data and identify patterns in the process, the medical industry is on the verge of any number of innovations, including preventative healthcare and the ability to accurately diagnose long-term health conditions in patients.
Unfortunately, data is currently stored in different formats across a wide number of locations that don’t communicate effectively. From insurance companies to providers to patients, the healthcare industry’s data pool is more of a collection of separate ponds that are failing to live up to their potential to offer big data analytics as yet.
Again, it’s a system that needs unifying.
When it comes to insurance and the paying of medical bills, a lack of price transparency is making the already complicated terrain even harder to navigate.
In an attempt to rectify this issue, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced a rule making it necessary for healthcare providers to disclose the prices they charge insurers for medical treatments.
Unfortunately, figures from 2021 indicate that only 5.6% of healthcare providers are abiding by this rule. As a result, patients are increasingly distrustful of hospitals that don’t publish their prices — perhaps for good reason — and are deciding against using these facilities as a result.
Much like the FHIR ‘standard’, the CMS rule is less a rule and more a piece of wishful thinking that the healthcare industry is hoping will stick by simply keeping its fingers crossed.
Creating a Working System
It’s clear from the US healthcare industry’s response to the pandemic, as well as the issues raised here, that the fundamental problem the industry faces is one of consolidation. Whether it be in technology or regulation, the system is suffering from a lack of focus and direction — and, as always, it’s the patient that ends up paying the price.
However, as challenges go, none are insurmountable by any means. All that’s required is the will to turn the world’s most expensive healthcare system into the world’s most effective one.
And on that note, we wish you good health.