Dec 22 2020
Digital Workspace

Healthcare Tech Trends for 2021: New Tools to Watch

From robots to home-based care models, the past year’s wave of innovation is poised to continue.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented — and in some cases permanent — changes to healthcare delivery. 

A strong, technology-driven response to address urgent needs will have positive implications that last beyond the current health crisis, giving patients and providers new options for preventive care and better connectivity.

Rapid advancements, though exciting, can challenge IT teams, who carry the duty of knowing what to deploy and incorporating it into their clinical ecosystems.

ROUNDTABLE Q&A: Health IT leaders discuss the pandemic’s effect on their operations.

“The expectation in healthcare is that a leader is able to deliver new things, sometimes not even knowing what they were yesterday, and deploy those technologies in an excellent way,” Russell Branzell, president and CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, told HealthTech earlier this year. 

“Doing so is critical to help guide organizations through cultural and behavioral adaptation at a pace that’s not normal.”

With COVID-19 vaccines on the way and patient expectations quickly shifting, there will be plenty to consider in 2021. Here are 5 things teams should keep in mind:

1. Patients Will Increasingly Drive the Healthcare Experience

As hospitals continue to handle high-risk cases and work to deliver long-distance care for nonacute cases, there’s an increased need for patients to take a more proactive role in their health. Likewise, more personal technology will be integrated to enhance and address shortfalls in home healthcare delivery.

Organizations are supporting this movement by optimizing and expanding their telehealth programs and setting up digital portals that offer a variety of self-service functions and messaging services.

Efforts to curb readmissions, which have taken on higher importance in recent months, are being bolstered by health IT teams launching and expanding wearables and remote patient monitoring programs to collect and transmit patients’ vital signs from afar. Providers, though, must be ready to handle issues of education and connectivity.

2. Permanent Changes to Hospital Design and Cleaning Technologies

To keep spaces more sanitary, healthcare providers are looking to a host of tools to tackle the critical tasks of deep cleaning and enforcing good hygiene. They’re also changing layouts and check-in processes to reduce clustering and identify contagious visitors before they enter a building.

Deployments may include autonomous robots that emit germ-killing ultraviolet light to decontaminate rooms in 15 minutes and RFID technology to track how long — and how often — employees wash their hands. More hospitals are using thermal cameras at entryways to detect those with elevated body temperature, a common but not universal symptom of COVID-19.

Expect to see more design changes to buildings. These include convertible spaces to accommodate temporary surges in critical-care patients, transparent glass or plastic walls to view isolated patients, retrofitted rooms for delivering inpatient telehealth and tools such as touch-screen kiosks and handheld alert buzzers so people won’t crowd a waiting area before a visit. 

3. AI and Automation for Efficiency, Reduced Clinical Burden

As doctors and support staff rush to handle waves of COVID-19 cases while facing reduced staff due to illness or mandated isolation, they’ll increasingly look to solutions that can handle some of the work — or anticipate a need before it develops.

The need for efficiency and touch-free interactions has the potential to boost clinical use of natural language processing — a branch of AI that allows computers to understand spoken remarks — by seamlessly transmitting data into a patient’s electronic health record. Alternatively, automated services such as symptom-checking chatbots will continue to ease administrative bottlenecks. 

High-level uses of AI will evolve to deliver personalized care, several HIMSS20 panelists noted earlier this year. These may include algorithms and machine learning that can accurately detect cancer and heart disease, virtual assistants to deliver medication reminders and robot-assisted therapy for recovering stroke patients. 

4. Augmented and Virtual Reality Integration Across the Care Spectrum

Being immersed in a virtual world or viewing real-life spaces with digital enhancements is no longer just a game. With the help of headsets and specially designed software, medical professionals are finding wider uses for augmented and virtual reality. The closure of classroom and clinical spaces during the pandemic underscores the potential.

Options include lifelike surgical training programs, supplemental clinical experiences for nursing students, distraction for pain management and even the ability to view images with a new and detailed perspective (clinicians at the George Washington University Hospital, for instance, recently used VR to analyze the lung scans of a COVID-19 patient).

VR also is also poised to gain traction in senior care communities. Although activities such as virtual travel and avatar-led chat rooms might seem like fun, the engaging and memory-triggering encounters can also be highly therapeutic. The technology, which can be used solo or in a group, opens up a new world for older adults during quarantine.

5. Data Analytics, Interoperability to Support Widespread Vaccination

Keeping tabs on scores of COVID-19 vaccine shipments — as well as notifying and patients clamoring to be inoculated over two separate visits — will require healthcare organizations to deploy strong data analytics and real-time tracking platforms to keep up with the changes.

Likewise, increased data interoperability between different EHR platforms and healthcare systems will be critical in tracking who has been vaccinated. This will be key for general public health, of course, but also in ensuring accurate record-keeping if a person relocates or changes providers before the second vaccination. 

New federal interoperability rules designed to improve consumers’ access to their own health data will likely aid these efforts, but organizations will be required to adopt new technologies and data-sharing standards to make it happen.

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