As tends to happen at the turn of a new year, a number of insights recently emerged about the state of healthcare in 2020 (we even made a few ourselves). Now, just months into the new decade, we’re looking at an entirely different landscape, as the emergence of a novel coronavirus has left governments, businesses and individuals around the world scrambling to deal with this unprecedented global crisis.
Looking back on some of our predictions around emerging technology and consumerization, it’s clear that these trends have very much come into play — just in ways we never could have anticipated. Here, we’re highlighting how three areas in particular — artificial intelligence, retailization and consumer centricity — are helping to combat the COVID-19 crisis, and what this says about the future of healthcare.
The Myriad Potential of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is already proving to be a strong tool in the fight against COVID-19, from identifying and analyzing pandemic activity to developing the means to eradicate it. In fact, the AI platform BlueDot is credited as being first to detect the coronavirus after picking up on an unusual number of pneumonia cases around a market in Wuhan, China. BlueDot flagged the cluster on December 31, 2019, nine days before the World Health Organization released its initial statement on the virus to the public. Since then, BlueDot and various other organizations have been using AI to track and anticipate the spread of the coronavirus, drawing on a breadth of data sources to inform predictive modeling and decision-making.
As hospitals strain to treat an onslaught of patients presenting with COVID-19 symptoms, some are turning to AI to help maximize time and resources. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Florida’s Tampa General Hospital is installing an AI system to detect fever in COVID-19 patients by facial scan, while Sheba Medical Center in Israel is using AI to predict which patients are soon likely to experience respiratory failure or other complications from the virus. With emergency departments poised to become overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, AI’s ability to augment the clinician workflow could play a powerful role as vital resources are stretched.
In the race to develop an antiviral treatment, recent advancements in drug development show that AI could potentially accelerate the effort. The first AI-developed vaccine — a “turbocharged” flu vaccine — is slated for a 12-month clinical trial in the U.S., while the first “non-man-made drug molecule” is in phase one clinical trials for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Using algorithms and AI, the drug reached clinical trials in just one year — a process that generally takes several years to complete. Experts warn that a COVID-19 vaccine is at least 12 to 18 months away, but the fact that we’re now seeing AI tangibly reduce drug discovery and development timelines holds promise at a time when we could use all the hope we can get.
Retailization Driven by More Than Consumer Preference
The consumerization — or retailization — of healthcare has been a growing trend, as consumers seek more convenient, on demand alternatives to the traditional care setting. In the age of COVID-19, however, convenience has proven to be more than just a matter of preference, as the need for accessible, widespread testing has led to the recruitment of major retailers — Walmart, Target, Walgreens and CVS Health — for use of their store fleets as testing centers.
Urgent care centers, whose value proposition has historically centered on convenience and accessibility, have found themselves in the uniquely challenging position of being on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. With limited testing nationwide and changing, often conflicting guidelines around how to get tested and treated, urgent care is often the first stop for concerned patients. But just as emergency departments are struggling to maintain supply and capacity, urgent care’s capabilities are also being stretched thin, with many only able to rule out the flu and send patients home or, if their symptoms are severe enough, to the ER.
A Lifeline in Telehealth
A hard truth under these difficult circumstances is that the rapid spread of COVID-19 is forcing almost a process of elimination approach to testing and treatment in order to make limited healthcare resources available to the most vulnerable patients. This has inspired “stay home if you are sick” recommendations and instructions to call a healthcare provider before seeking in-person care.
It comes as no surprise, then, that telehealth platforms are emerging as a means of providing remote screening for coronavirus patients as well as treating milder, non-coronavirus-related issues as people are discouraged from seeking non-urgent in-person care. In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries, and many healthcare organizations and urgent care providers are investing in and promoting virtual care programs to help stop the spread.
In our early 2020 predictions, we speculated as to how patient centricity would redefine the care setting in the coming years, and how retailization might help fuel this shift. But what we’re seeing play out during the COVID-19 crisis is the need for alternative delivery options to optimize the full healthcare ecosystem — protecting healthcare resources to ensure care is made available to those who need it most.
It is impossible to predict what the coming days, months or even years will bring in the aftermath of COVID-19, but what is clear is that the actions we’re taking today are likely to fundamentally change our systems in the future. We’re seeing a rapid evolution in healthcare driven by the need to urgently address a global crisis, and we would all be wise to use this moment to reflect, learn and adapt to the changing landscape.