July 28, 2021 // //  //       //  Opinion

Cautious Optimism About the Future of Health

Like so many others, my career in healthcare was completely accidental at its inception. Years into a successful fundraising career and weeks into a master’s degree program, I decided to shift gears into health communications knowing little about either. The day after Lehman Brothers crashed, I impulsively accepted a mid-level communications position and a 25% pay cut with a nonprofit focused on strengthening primary care in New York City. 

A few years into my tenure, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed. It was overwhelming, but also re-energizing for the industry. It was just what we needed, a legislative imperative to drive change across the system. I recall one of my first assignments was to read through the 2,700-page legislation, as well as consulting firm analyses, advocacy group materials and legislative fact sheets to determine the law’s impact on federal qualified health centers (FQHCs) and ambulatory clinics. It will forever stand out in my mind as a formative experience and one that got me hooked on healthcare communications. 

The ACA continued to be a center of my career for more than a decade. I became an informal expert on issues like Medicaid expansion, the ACA-driven political conflicts, court cases set in motion to dismantle it (King v. Burwell, anyone?) and public opinion pushed to the edges. And despite the chaos, compliance, court rulings and re-rulings, we still saw progress. Some 20 million more Americans gained insurance coverage and 135 million people were protected against discrimination for having pre-existing conditions, just to name a few achievements.

So what’s different about the progress we now experience in healthcare today? 

Clearly, the impetus for change is obviously wildly different than it was 10 years ago when the ACA passed. This time around, the health legislative and regulatory activity stemming from the global pandemic is an after-effect of change, as opposed to the catalyst for it. Rather than a legislative imperative, we’re looking at a COVID-19-inspired “socio-technological imperative.” 

Put simply, today’s public health crisis is driving drastic, seismic shifts that shape new behaviors, culture, business models and economic trends across the healthcare industry and many others. This level of systemic change can only be facilitated and supported by major technological advances on the consumer and B2B sides, some of which are technologies that have existed for decades but were not yet widely adopted.

This also explains the cautious optimism, and I am more optimistic than I was in 2010. Why? Because we are witnessing a cultural driver of real change -- as opposed to legislative, regulatory or any other mandated change -- and we know that in these types of situations, change has a much better chance of sticking. Even more rare is the likelihood that an entire industry would claw back 20 years of progress accomplished in less than two years.

The stickiest of the “sticky” is without a doubt the healthcare industry darling of our pandemic lives: telehealth. Turn to any optimistic healthcare headlines over the past 16 months, and chances are it has touted the benefits, uptake and proliferation of telehealth -- and for good reason. Telehealth drives far-reaching M&A activity, record-breaking tech investment and brand pivots. The presence of Amazon Care may be perhaps the strongest industry signal that telehealth is here to stay and with it, we’ll see related surges in remote monitoring, hospital in the home and wearables, to name a few.

But while the proliferation of telehealth is encouraging, it is not the magic bullet that will fix it all. For one, not everyone has access to it, especially people impacted by social determinants of health. A recent JAMA study showed people living in areas with limited social resources were the least likely to use telehealth, including the under- or uninsured, low income populations and rural locations.

Real progress will be measured by connectivity, ease of use and the ability of systems to truly talk to each other, so that a healthcare experience and the management of health data and records is as secure and easy to access as your financial information is from your bank. It would be like accessing cash from an ATM when you’re across town or across the globe, and your primary care physician is alerted about your emergency room visit as seamlessly and instantly as you’d receive a Venmo transfer notification.

So what can we do as communicators do to ensure the stickiness of progress.

Let’s embrace the complicated. While telehealth gets most of the credit, equally as important are the companies taking on the unsexiest of problems that can save us hundreds of millions of dollars to create true, lasting change. Anyone can tout the benefits of a calorie-tracking app or a virtual medical visit -- get comfortable with the platforms that clean data before you even get to use AI, solve for efficiencies via third-party benefits administration, digitalize clinical trials or automate insurance claims data processing. 

All are leading progress that needs to be unpacked, scaled and celebrated, and we’re here for it.

Michelle Webb leads the Health Practice and is a seasoned health strategy expert with extensive experience in strategic communications and corporate strategy for health companies.

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