What we’re expecting in 2021, and beyond…

telehealth to digital trials, customer engagement to healthcare data

From telehealth to digital trials, customer engagement to healthcare data, Healthware Group outlines the key trends that are expected to shake up digital health this year.

Well, it goes without saying, COVID-19 has resulted in a rapid adoption of digital technologies across all industries, most notably in healthcare. There are several important aspects to these shifts for pharma, biotech and medical device companies, so what can we expect to see over the next 12 months and beyond?

Telehealth keeps maturing and integrates into care pathways

The adoption of telehealth, which was already accelerating pre-pandemic, has been exponentially driven by COVID-19. It’s swept aside several historic barriers to uptake, such as the healthcare professional and patient desire to physically meet, medical guidelines that focus on in-person diagnosis and reimbursement models that discourage remote consultation.

2020 was a psychological and systemic tipping point for telehealth, adoption of which will accelerate in 2021 as it becomes the norm, in the process driving new self-service approaches to medicine and participation-based reimbursement models.

Mental health worsens - digital tools continue to fill the gap

The emotional and psychological wellbeing of the world’s population has been put under tremendous strain because of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating an existing global mental health epidemic.

There is an opportunity to address this at scale with digital tools and techniques, and expand support into just about any therapeutic area through the holistic integration of mental and behavioural health solutions that improve patient care.

Mental health support is key to improving outcomes in chronic diseases and can also provide an invaluable empathetic and psychological component of support for people dealing with other complex medical situations.

When coupled with conversational interfaces and AI, digital mental health solutions are perceived as highly personal by users and open the door for a profound transformation in people’s relationships with digital health tools and how they integrate them into their daily lives.

Clinical trials get more and more digitalised

As study enrolment continues to lag drastically behind target, patient recruitment is set to rely even more on digital marketing to improve its speed and accuracy. These techniques will also need to be applied to screening, interviews and the actual studies themselves, particularly as more trials move towards a virtual, decentralised or hybrid model.

Digital screening of subjects makes their geographical location less relevant, which may make studies more attractive as there is less requirement to travel. And with the support of remote sampling, and growing tools for gathering real world evidence about improved quality of life, the clinical trials of the future can be done faster, with lower costs and on a more decentralised basis.

‘Aging in place’ becomes more commonplace

Aging in place will become more common as the baby boomer generation ages and feels more comfortable leveraging tools like remote monitoring, telehealth and disease management platforms. Living independently will be critical to this age group and digital health tools will be critical in supporting them in this endeavour. The adoption and growth of digital tools is expected to explode as a result. This is certainly evident in the amount of investment in the category.

The inevitable invisibility of digital health

Technology will begin to dematerialise, as has already been seen in other industries, and digital health will increasingly be woven into everyday objects. We’re starting to see this happen through the emergence of smart homes and smart cars (i.e., steering wheels that also measure the driver’s heart rate). As more data is collected passively, there will be more opportunities for integration.

No more ‘business as usual’ for pharma’s customer engagement

Life sciences companies need to rethink their customer engagement paradigms in light of changing customer preferences. Pharma should update the role of the rep from simply delivering a sales message to more of a concierge service model, providing access to - and facilitating the delivery of - meaningful content that physicians want and need. As such, reps will need to be reskilled.

Self-service models for HCPs are also needed in order to provide access to content when and how they want it - as already seen in other industries, the expectation will be for 24/7 access.

While digital-only product promotion was laughed at just a year ago, we’ve already seen the first digital-only blockbuster launch, and we expect this will become a growing trend. Pharma companies will need to continually rethink what works and not be afraid to experiment with solutions they’ve never tried before.

A growing need for digital health proficiency

While 2014 is often quoted as the first year where the majority of working healthcare professionals were digital natives, 2020 was the year when the remaining digital immigrants were forced to travel into the online world. Post-pandemic, online engagement will continue to be commonplace and 2021 will see much broader rollouts of ‘digital’ training for medics (young and old), and all medical societies will have to embrace online learning and digital publishing models. In addition, the subject matter for ongoing disease research will focus even further on COVID-19 comorbidities and the longer-term impact of the virus.

Integration of telehealth strategy into commercial models

Amazon is making a serious global move into healthcare delivery with the acquisition of PillPack, and its recent launch of Amazon Pharmacy. With Amazon Care, it is starting to experiment with virtual health care services, offering them first to its own employees and with plans to expand them to health plans and other employers.

These moves are bringing Amazon closer and closer to a true end-to-end model, similar to the turnkey solutions offered by the likes of Hims, Ro and others in the category with an original focus on conditions with an associated stigma. We’re already starting to see some pharma build end-to-end solutions like this in birth control, and we’re expecting to see these efforts branch out into other disease areas. And beyond building end-to-end solutions like this to drive scripts, we expect pharma to begin approaching telehealth more generally as a potential marketing/sales channel, helping to remove barriers to care, improving online visits and even helping HCPs understand the benefits.

Consolidation of digital health platforms

Digital health platforms will likely see a wave of further consolidations, with a few leading platforms starting to stake out their respective positions across the healthcare spectrum. This trend can be seen as a net positive, in that it will enable digital therapeutic solution developers to concentrate on building the individual vertical products that will live on these platforms.

However, issues around data ownership and sharing will need to be addressed and resolved (by way of regulations) to avoid a situation where solutions that are competitive to platform owners’ own cannot find a way to be listed on them. Price controls will also need to be mandated to avoid the types of ‘access taxes’ currently seen, such as with Apple’s App Store fees on sales charged to app developers (upwards of 30% of sales collected), who have no way to sell their apps directly to iPhone users.

Services to manage and make sense of the health data explosion

We expect to see what we call Health Data as a Service (HDaS). As more solutions and devices generate increasing amounts of health data, there is a greater need to aggregate that data in a useful way for consumers. Consumers want and need tools to make sense of all that data. They also want to ensure they know who has access to that data, and control over where it can flow. So, we expect to see more tools supporting consumers in this way.

We look forward to continuing to contribute to the advancement of digital health and digital transformation across all aspects of the healthcare ecosystem and welcome your thoughts on the above.

About the authors

Roberto Ascione is Healthware Group’s CEO and founder, and a pioneer in digital health and a recognised thought leader, people-inspiring founder, serial entrepreneur and global manager.


Gerry Chillè is senior partner at Healthware Group, in charge of its digital therapeutics pipeline strategy and development.


Fulvio Fortini is Healthware’s managing director – Italy. With more than 20 years of experience, he is passionate about digital technology and an expert in the health and wellness sector.


Petteri Kolehmainen is managing director – Finland, leading Healthware’s Helsinki team, with focus on the Nordic and Baltic countries, bringing strong experience in technology and business development.


Kristin Milburn is managing director at Healthware Labs, which was launched in New York in 2015 with a mission to accelerate digital health and therapeutic innovation.


Ariel Salmang is managing director at Intouch International, a unique joint venture between Healthware Group and the Intouch Group.


Paul Tunnah is Healthware’s chief content officer and managing director UK, and a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor with a passion for helping organisations tell authentic stories.


If you’d like to learn more about how we think please reach out to hello@healthwaregroup.com

About Healthware Group

Healthware is an integrated consulting group that for more than 20 years has been offering large companies and start-ups in the life sciences and insurance sectors a unique set of services and expertise in strategic consulting, communication, technology and innovation, to drive the digital transformation of health.

26 January, 2021