2021 – The healthcare changes here to stay

2020 was the year that changed everything, and as the new year begins many are wondering what awaits the world in 2021. Impetus Digital co-founder and CEO Natalie Yeadon reflects on the last 12 months and shares her views on the healthcare, research and digital changes that could be here to stay.

I think it is fair to say that 2020 will not be particularly missed by anyone. Many started the year with big plans, whether for overseas trips, weddings, or industry events, and then the unthinkable happened. While the world first heard of the novel coronavirus in late 2019, it was not until 11 March 2020 that it was declared a global pandemic and it finally sank in just how serious of a threat it was. But how will the world continue to change in 2021?

Major global events

COVID-19 has amplified many of the issues that society was already facing. Although the pandemic has largely taken the media’s focus away from the climate crisis, it has given us a preview of what is to come if we do not stop exploiting the planet and our wildlife. Indeed, 2020 brought new record forest fires and extreme weather events.

In addition, 2020 was the year where social justice (not least in the form of Black Lives Matter protests) was brought into focus. Racial discrimination and bias were also uncovered in healthcare, with stark differences in COVID-19 rates and mortality between different ethnicities in many countries.

COVID-19 has widened the already large class divides seen between white-collar and service workers, with the former typically having the option of working from home and taking the recommended social distancing precautions. Conversely, the latter group is largely being forced to carry on with their work with little protection and low compensation, if they even have a job to go to after many smaller businesses closed their doors.

Public health has been politicised

Somehow, in 2020, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of a highly contagious disease became a controversial and political issue. People were asked to stay home, watch Netflix, and bake sourdough bread to protect those who are vulnerable, yet photos of packed bars and sports stadiums soon emerged and anti-masking protests were held across the world.

Epidemiologists, researchers, and clinicians are now household names, with people like Dr Anthony Fauci and Sweden’s Anders Tegnell drawing their fair share of both praise and criticism domestically and internationally. Countries’ strategies to contain the spread of the virus have been debated and criticised, and it will likely be years before we will be able to say which approaches were “right” and “wrong”.

“On the upside, the pandemic has brought enhanced focus to mental health issues and innovative approaches on how to best address these. If we can keep the momentum going and retain this focus post-COVID, perhaps the stigma around mental health can be lifted and better treatment strategies can emerge”

Mental health focus

The secondary effects on mental health during the pandemic are vast. We are already seeing increased rates of depression and anxiety because of the pandemic, and there are no signs of this slowing down. Women are especially impacted, disproportionately having to take on childcare or home-schooling compared to their male counterparts.

On the upside, the pandemic has brought enhanced focus to these issues and innovative approaches on how to best address mental health. If we can keep the momentum going and retain this focus post-COVID, perhaps the stigma can be lifted and better treatment strategies can emerge.

United global research

Another positive note is that the pandemic has accelerated laboratory and clinical trial collaboration far beyond what has ever been seen before. From the onset of the pandemic, scientists have been openly sharing their data with investigators from other centres or countries. It has also shown that the time it takes to get a drug to market can be substantially reduced when there is enough funding and political will. How this will affect clinical trials and regulatory approvals in the future remains to be seen, but there is reason to be optimistic.

Healthcare goes virtual

Before 2020, telehealth appointments were few and far between, with many clinics not set up for these services. Since then, the growth of telemedicine has been exponential. Another aspect of healthcare that has had to adapt is the way we monitor chronic conditions. Older patients or those with co-morbidities are at higher risk of severe COVID-19, so frequent clinic visits for routine blood pressure measurements are not always feasible. As a result, we have seen a dramatic increase in the interest and uptake of remote monitoring devices such as wearables and mobile health apps. I predict that this is just the beginning of healthcare’s virtualisation and am excited to see what the new year has in store.

Remote work is the future

Another major change in 2020 was of course the sudden move to remote work. For many, it was a 180-degree shift from business as usual. Interestingly, in a Canadian survey, the majority of respondents (55%) expected at least some of the workforce to remain remote in a substantial way after the pandemic is over, while only 17% expected all staff to be onsite five days a week. Further, major companies like Twitter have announced that employees will be able to work from home permanently, signalling a clear change in the way that we do work. While not without challenges, I see remote work becoming a mainstay due to its greater flexibility and convenience for workers.

Virtual events are rapidly improving

Finally, the ways that pharmaceutical and scientific communities attend meetings and events completely changed in 2020. Virtual meetings such as advisory boards and steering committees were already popular before this year but were often accompanied by in-person meetings. We have now seen without a doubt that it is possible to meet the same objectives virtually, often more effectively and at a lower cost.

The biggest change, however, is the way we now attend larger events such as conferences, congresses, and medical education events. There is no shortage of online conference solutions available, but there is still much to improve on. For example, some aspects of in-person events are not always there or are poor substitutes for the real thing.

Ideally, virtual event platforms should be comprehensive so that everything you need is in the same place. The layout, branding, and inclusions should be completely customisable to your needs, and it should come with all aspects of in-person events such as networking, breakout workshops, exhibitor booths, and poster sessions. The good news is that these types of platforms are getting better by the day, and so are the virtual events that they host.

What have we learned from the last year?

The past 12 months have shown that firstly, we live in a highly polarised world where science and public health are up for debate. Secondly, crisis leads to innovation and finally digital health technologies are the future with remote work and virtual meetings here to stay.

Wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy 2021.

About the author

Natalie YeadonNatalie Yeadon is the CEO and co-founder of Impetus Digital, where she helps life science clients virtualise their meetings and events and create authentic relationships with their customers.