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Best of 2021: Improvements in Healthcare

A bunch of digital stuff in a healthcare setting

(Editor’s note: With 2o21 drawing to a close, it’s time to look back on the innovations that the year brought us. Read about the great leaps forward in the transportation sector here!)

When it comes to achievements in healthcare for 2021, it’s not surprising several have transpired. Faced with a global pandemic, the healthcare sector was forced to adapt and evolve. Many of these changes occurred early as COVID spread rapidly resulting in lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing. Telehealth services rapidly expanded, and major pharmaceutical companies developed vaccines and drugs to fight COVID in record time. And a number of companies provided healthcare innovations related to symptom tracking, predictive analytics, and diagnostics. Each of these advances have resulted in a significant quality improvement in healthcare services.

While these healthcare innovations are notable, many other improvements in healthcare have taken place in 2021. Quality improvement in healthcare has expanded well beyond managing a pandemic and is tackling much larger issues. Some of these new developments are exploring the use of digital tools in healthcare management. Others are leveraging technologies to advance research and personalized medicine. And additional ones are reexploring the potential value of psychedelics in mental health disorders. For 2021, these are the more impressive healthcare innovations worth noting. With this in mind, the following explains these advances in greater detail and their potential impact on the future of medicine.

  • Scaling Up Big Data for the Healthcare Sector

One of the major issues affecting healthcare has been an inability to optimize all the data available. Interoperability issues plague the entire system with various electronic health record (EHR) platforms poorly communicating among one another. But companies are now aggressively pursuing strategies to better utilize Big Data in an effort to realize quality improvement in healthcare. Truveta, a rapidly expanding startup, is a perfect example of such a company that has made headlines this year. By collecting massive amounts of healthcare data and anonymizing it, Truveta hopes to provide healthcare data for widespread use. This not only involves EHR and insurance data but also data from wearables, biometric sensors, and digital therapeutics. These healthcare innovations will have a major impact in terms of population and personalized healthcare quality in the future.

  • Quality Improvement in Healthcare Through Gamification

In 2020, we saw healthcare innovations that involved digital fitness equipment as well as electronic wearables. In 2021, however, the industry took another step forward to explore gamification in healthcare. Gamification is the process of creating a game-like environment in sectors where gaming is not the norm. In healthcare, gamification is now being used to increase patient engagement and promote adherence to medical care. Several companies are now involved in these applications to achieve greater quality improvement in healthcare. For example, Paceline and Sweatcoin provide monetary rewards through gamification platforms. Betterfly lets patients earn charitable donations while Wellth allows them to receive discounts on prescriptions.  Thus far, gamification looks to be having a positive effect, especially in regard to patient engagement. Therefore, it’s probable these healthcare strategies will continue to evolve in the years to come. (Dive deeper into Bold’s exploration of gamification in healthcare here!)

  • Mental Healthcare and Magic Mushrooms

This past year, there has also been a major shift in how the healthcare community is viewing psychedelic therapies. Specifically, research is now demonstrating the potential for quality improvement in healthcare for psilocybin, the drug found in magic mushrooms. Studies performed at Johns Hopkins have shown that more than half of depression patients receiving psilocybin went into remission. Likewise, magic mushrooms also appear to be highly effective in treating addiction and may benefit PTSD and anxiety disorders. All of this has led the NIH to begin providing grants for psychedelic research. And many new companies are exploring related healthcare innovations linked to these compounds. Companies like Mind Medicine and 20/20 Global are combining digital therapeutics with psychedelics. Others like Compass Pathways are exploring synthetic formulations. Without question, the past 12 months has seen a significant increase in the level of interest in psychedelics’ use in healthcare. (Check out Bold’s series on psilocybin–start with this story?)

  • Mental Healthcare and AI Technologies

With advances in artificial intelligence, it’s not surprising that 2021 has also seen healthcare innovations here as well. One of the most intriguing developments has been the use of AI in mental healthcare. AI therapeutics are now being utilized and studied as an adjunct to traditional therapy. In these settings, an AI Therapist is being used to screen for mental health conditions and provide education. Some chatbots are being tested to see if they might be able to offer limited counseling advice. Some companies, like, are also using AI to evaluate the quality of psychotherapists. While AI is being used to boost quality improvement in healthcare here, it’s unlikely it will replace actual therapists. Instead, these technologies will more likely facilitate screening, education, and accessibility for those in need of mental health services. (Yes, artificial intelligence-driven therapy is a thing. Yes, Bold has written about it.)

  • Direct Contracting and Value-Based Care

While many new healthcare innovations have involved technology, one major new development in healthcare for 2021 did not. For several years, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has tried to get away from a fee-for-service model. This model is a major reason why healthcare costs have grown excessive and quality has suffered. This year, however, CMS introduced the direct contracting model for Medicare recipients. Instead of rewarding providers for services, this model rewards them for saving on costs and better patient outcomes. In other words, direct contracting incentivized value and quality improvement in healthcare. This is a major shift in how providers are reimbursed, and it may well be a model for all of U.S. healthcare in the future.

A doctor using VR goggles for some reason
2021 was a banner year for healthcare innovation–it had to be!

Major Steps But a Long Way to Go

The pandemic certainly served as a catalyst for healthcare innovations in 2020. Likewise, the momentum for change it created continued into 2021. The digitization of healthcare continues to evolve in an effort to realize quality improvement in healthcare services. To a great extent, the new developments in this sector this past year have been extensive. But at the same time, healthcare as an industry still has a great deal to improve. The technological innovations, new therapeutic approaches, and new reimbursement models all have tremendous potential. But in order to realize true value-based healthcare, these must be used as stepping stones to continued progress. From this perspective, the improvements in healthcare for 2021 hold great promise for things to come.


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