Health Care in the Crystal Ball


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Predictions (and Challenges) for Healthcare and the Life Sciences in 2021

It’s difficult to imagine a year with more potential to spark dynamic change in a sector than what 2021 promises to do for healthcare and the life sciences. The events of the previous year have lined up all the prerequisites for those changes to occur.

What began as a system-wide shock, followed by the successes of an unprecedented global alignment around emergent therapies and pharma innovation, has now crashed into a seemingly endless (albeit expected) laundry list of logistical and practical struggles. Manufacturing, distribution, last-mile delivery, and access to care have all stumbled under the weight of frenzied demand and fragmented integration, exposing weaknesses in the sector’s ability to respond to and augment strained public health efforts. It has been and will continue to be a trial under fire.

But it’s those very difficulties that will spur needed change, and launch a new era for health and life sciences.

Two major reports have mapped out predictions for the paths forward — and the obstacles to overcome. The IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Health Industry 2021 Predictions report focuses heavily on the impact of granular digitalization efforts. The report from PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI), Top health industry issues of 2021: Will a shocked system emerge stronger?, takes a more holistic view of how the operational, employee and customer experiences will need to evolve to benefit from these technological shifts. Differences aside, the bottom line in both reports is unmistakable. By necessity — and resolve — the future is coming.


Patients, healthcare professionals, and hospitals had uneven experiences of the pandemic-driven rush to adopt telehealth practices. Going forward, issues will need to be addressed with a strategic refinement of the system in mind.

“In the year ahead, the industry will work to determine which virtual visits make the most sense, and where and how they should take place,” according to the PwC report. “Some specialties, such as mental health, may find stronger footing via virtual visits. Healthcare provider executives surveyed by HRI most frequently cited mental health and psychiatry (58%), family medicine (56%), obstetrics and gynecology (46%), and pediatrics (44%) as the specialties in which their organizations will offer virtual visits in 2021.”

“Tying virtual to in-person seamlessly is important for reducing leakage and maintaining ancillary services, follow-up appointments and prescription levels,” the PwC report adds. “Better integrating virtual patient visits into a care pathway makes for improved care and reduces dropped handoffs. More than half of consumers (51%) surveyed by HRI said they wanted a care coordinator or navigator to help orchestrate virtual and in-person care and provide support services.”

IDC’s report supports these points, noting that “digitally enabled remote care and clinical trials will drive 70% growth in spending on connected health technologies by providers and life science companies by 2023.”


IDC’s report clearly identifies “the disruptive forces of COVID-19” as having altered “everything across all verticals now and into the future.” Its predictions have a lot of the revealed operational and service-side cracks being filled by technology.

“Future enterprises will break away from traditional health industry practices by embracing digital transformation at scale. These are digitally determined organizations, organizing around high-value, high-growth, digital transformation use cases where reinvention is commonplace and all operations are happening at hyperscale, hyperspeed, and are hyperconnected,” the report says.

It boldly presages that, by the end of 2021, 7 out of 10 leading wrist-worn wearables companies will have released algorithms capable of early infectious disease detection — including COVID-19 and the common flu. By 2024, 30% of pharma companies and 40% of health care providers will be offering smartphone or smartwatch apps to improve medication adherence and patient engagement, circling the loop between behavior and data collection.

This proliferation of client data and Real-World Evidence (RWE) will result in 60% of the IT infrastructures of healthcare organizations being completely rebuilt around AI and machine learning by 2024. With the addition of highly efficient, IoT-connected machines across the supply chain, much of the minute-to-minute decision making and processes will be fully AI-automated by the end of 2021.


Whether it’s the use of VR Reality (VR) in surgical training or AI-driven, Augmented Reality (AR) diagnostic tools, future healthcare professionals will have to become very comfortable working with integrated technologies and taking their cues from algorithms in the years to come.

IDC’s report predicts that “to enable immersive training for healthcare professionals and enhance customer experience, 60% of providers will move from proof of concept to full deployment of AR/VR technologies by 2025.” And that, “by 2026, 65% of medical imaging workflows will use AI to detect underlying disease and guide clinical intervention, while 50% will use teleradiology to share studies and improve access to radiologists.”


Continuing a theme from last year, emphasis continues to be placed on efforts that increase convenience, customization, and individuated control. When customers interact with healthcare services and products, they crave ease and personalization — and it’s up to healthcare and life sciences organizations to both anticipate and exceed these expectations. Embracing the lessons of retail markets and delivering “on-demand healthcare” is one way to meet those rising customer demands.

PwC’s report puts it plainly. “Health organizations should reengineer their products and services and how they are delivered in a way that creates a positive customer experience that is also financially sustainable.”

“In 2021, whoever captures the consumer first is expected to have more influence in guiding and navigating users through other parts of the health ecosystem,” HRI researchers suggest. “The competitive landscape may transcend geographies. For academic medical centers, offering free or low-cost telehealth consultations may be a way to attract new patients willing to travel for specialized procedures.”


Seismic changes in health care call for equivalent adjustments to leadership, with titles such as Chief Digital Officer and Chief Analytics Officer taking their places in the C-suite, and even the creation of a digital board of directors. The future of healthcare and the life sciences — of the sector’s increased IT requirements — demands that organizations look to find talent with a digital mindset, if they hope to keep up with growth in a competitive healthcare IT market.

The PwC report also draws attention to a lack of effective predictive tools in the healthcare sector. “The industry has been missing the equivalent of a CEO flight simulator to help health leaders identify warning signs early, so they can be prepared to make quick decisions when necessary, while also allowing for dynamic strategic planning,” it says. “HRI’s survey found that provider and life sciences executives believe they are reasonably able to understand their supplies and workforce, but they feel they have less of a vision into predicting supply and demand.”


These are just some of the insights and challenges outlined by the PwC and IDC reports. How many of those predictions come to pass is something we can only know in hindsight. But the message from both is clear.

As Mutaz Shegewi, Research Director of IDC Health Insights puts it “the transformation taking shape in the new normal and journey that lies ahead toward the next normal presents with it many emerging opportunities, challenges, use cases, and lessons that will fast-forward healthcare and life sciences into an entirely unforeseen future.”