Looking back over the past two years, I think most would agree that we aren’t quite where we thought (or hoped) we’d be at this point: Still battling COVID. While there’s still much uncertainty around when the pandemic will finally end, I believe the year 2022 will be a pivotal year in terms of taking what we’ve learned (and are still learning) from the pandemic and applying it toward making long-term improvements in our industry.
There’s little question that telehealth will take a more permanent role in care delivery ongoing. Just as other businesses have chosen to keep remote work as an option for some positions, telehealth has proven its benefits for many types of care, such as for patients who are homebound or who don’t have convenient access to the care they need in some kinds of visits, such for those who are homebound. I believe patients are going to want to keep telehealth as a choice but opt for in-person engagement first. I think the year 2022 will bring us a clearer vision of the best ways to use telehealth systemically to improve and enhance care quality and patient engagement overall.
Industries across the board are experiencing staffing issues right now, but it’s especially problematic in healthcare since optimal staffing is necessary for optimal outcomes. Physicians are now leaving the workplace in unprecedented numbers. It is predicted that by 2034 the U.S. could experience a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians in primary and specialty care alone.
While the issues are many and complex, the solutions don’t necessarily have to be. I think the year ahead will find healthcare organizations using innovation to address problems where they can, like using technology to automate workflows that previously relied on humans to perform. An example is using natural language processing (NLP) and speech-to-text technology to capture patient-provider conversations to automatically create visit summaries in the EHR. Removing this task from the provider’s plate gives them the ability to spend more time with patients, see more patients, and focus resources on other, more strategic initiatives.
Provider burnout was a growing problem long before COVID, but the pandemic has highlighted just how important this issue has become. In 2022, I believe healthcare leaders will finally realize it’s an issue that can no longer be ignored. With the pandemic taking such a huge hit to the bottom line, organizations realize that spending millions each year on provider recruitment, incentives, and onboarding just isn’t financially sustainable. They’ll be looking for ways to address burnout, like creating a better work-life balance. A great way to do this is to alleviate as many administrative burdens as possible, such as using medical documentation specialists (MDS) to manage charting in the EHR—a task many providers spend hours completing on their personal time. Getting 10 to 20 hours of extra family time each week can go a long way toward improving work-life balance and provider satisfaction.
Challenging times often highlight areas of weakness in systems and organizations. The pandemic has been no exception, especially in the area of population health. We realize just how far we have yet to go in our efforts to achieve the Triple Aim. I see 2022 as a year when we re-evaluate and re-emphasize our commitment to reducing costs, improving outcomes, and enhancing the patient experience. Even in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, there are ways to cost-effectively improve the quality of patient-provider engagement. Just as an MDS can reduce provider burnout, they can also help enhance the encounter. Because the MDS manages data entry into the EHR, the provider spends less time staring at a computer monitor and more time directly engaging with patients. That extra eye-to-eye contact enables providers to pick up on subtle nuances that can elevate the quality of the entire visit. In other words, it allows the provider to better balance the “art” with the science of medicine. When done well, it transforms the patient-provider relationship and improves patient satisfaction, which brings me to my final trend.
The dynamics of the patient experience have evolved over the past two years. Patients, who may have taken a passive role in their healthcare before the pandemic, have learned the importance of taking control. From searching for COVID testing sights online to self-administering tests at home, consumers are much more educated about their care options than before the pandemic. Even if 2022 is the year we finally rid ourselves of COVID, I think this trend toward consumer self-service will continue. If patients aren’t getting the care or attention they feel they need from their primary care providers, they know how to look for other options—and with the rise in retail and pharmacy clinics, there are plenty of options out there. Because of this, I think providers are going to have to look for innovative new ways to create high-quality, patient-centric care, whether that’s offering telehealth as an option ongoing or providing better two-way communication in the exam room. They’re also going to need to make a concerted effort to build trust with their patients so that patients understand the importance of sharing things like test results they receive elsewhere. Without this type of trust, providers won’t have the level of patient data they need to provide optimal care.
We’ve been through a lot the past two years, but I believe 2022 is going to bring new opportunities for making positive long-term improvements in our care delivery system.