Like in all industries, the novel coronavirus has been speeding up trends that already exist. In all of the horror and suffering that the virus has caused, it’s important to look for positive outcomes and developments brought on by our societal adjustments.
Here are some of the ways the healthcare industry will change over the coming years, for good and for bad, and how we may want to take precautions to any novel risks.
Technology and telemedicine
With an explosion of SaaS companies offering the infrastructure to work from home, we’re starting to see checkups and diagnosis move to online. Online doctors services in Canada as well as globally have been increasingly in demand, in part due to a social-distance workaround.
Modern tech has now enabled patients to be consulted by doctors despite not being physically present. This is brought on by an acceleration in access to video chat apps such as Facetime, Zoom and Skype. Everyone has a mobile and/or computer, and so this was originally used as a way to treat patients in remote areas. Today however, the usage has been driven by a resistance toward patients wasting time travelling to waiting rooms, as well as enforcing social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.
It’s popular from many doctors’ perspectives too, as a means to relieve burnout and a lack of time. For some doctors though, it means being on-call 24/7 by patients who may need or want immediate access to medical care.
A shift towards outpatient healthcare delivery
It’s not just consulting that can happen in the comfort of your own home, but actual healthcare delivery. Historically, inpatient hospital stays have been required for most diagnostic procedures and surgeries. In the past decade though, we’re seeing a trend towards delivering such procedures in an outpatient setting.
This trend is driven by new clinical innovations, along with the financial incentives and patient preferences. Of course, telemedicine has also perpetuated this movement, as they work hand-in-hand.
So, what exactly constitutes outpatient care? Generally, it’s settings such as retail clinics, urgent care centers, ambulatory surgery centers, imaging facilities and even patients’ homes.
New data protection
Regulation is evolving as cyber threats continue to rise and become more complex. Not only this, but the commercialization of healthcare (see below) has meant that it’s becoming decentralized, which is a recipe for disaster if data isn’t regulated by some central governing bodies. Otherwise, such health information of patients could even be sold on to insurance companies, and other unscrupulous deals.
Something as centralized as federal law may be unlikely in the US, but individual state protection is constantly evolving. California for example is putting through the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) in 2020 which enhances privacy rights, and applies to healthcare (though it still misses out some aspects).
We will begin to see an evolving debate surrounding privacy within healthcare, as many issues we are being faced with are novel to our time. Not just data protection, but regulation over powerful procedures within healthcare that could have dystopian potential (see below).
Commercialization of healthcare
This has long been happening in the US, but the trend continues at a fast pace — the public are close to being totally financially responsible for their healthcare. With rising premiums, co-insurance and deductibles, the healthcare space is increasingly looking like an all-out consumerist free market.
The implications of this is that “customers” (the sick and less able) will be shopping around for good value, because there are many vendors in this market. This means that healthcare providers begin to commoditise their services, and really think about customer experience and value.
This is partly what has brought on telemedicine and outpatient healthcare — giving the people what they want, and in some sense, competing against other providers.
This poses a lot of existential and moral threats of course, as questions over what the state should offer and what everyone in society should perhaps be entitled to — healthcare.
However, what competition and the free market does spur on, is innovation. We’re going to witness a tonne of new discoveries over the next 12 months, with advancements in stem cell research, cancer treatments and possibly a Coronavirus vaccine.
A disturbing thought, but with DNA advancements with TALEN and CRISPR, we are seeing the possibilities that genome editing may have. This works by manipulating parts of the bacterial system to allow gene editing in certain locations.
These are some highly influential discoveries that could have life-saving potential. Chinese scientists actually used the technology on a lung-cancer patient to cure their advanced form of the disease. There’s a tonne of great uses for this, such as allergy-free foods where you simply rewrite the regions of the gene in the immune system that causes allergic reaction, as well as greener fuels, animal de-extinction and controlling pests.
However, this quickly poses some concerns over playing God with the ecosystem in its entirety, as we may begin making our meat more nutritious and our horses race faster just for our selfish desire.
Or worse, we could see gene editing become commercial for unborn children, where the guardians get to pick the eye colour, athleticism, and many more attributes as if it were a game. The issue here is that there could be huge unintended consequences, such as homogenising an entire generation. This could happen if, say, many parents wanted to remove the likelihood of mental illness, but then in turn dampened the creative potential of their offspring (because the two are closely linked genetically). There’s lots of ways Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror could fill in the blanks here…
Hence why we come back to regulation and legislation. It’s always been important, but it’s never been more important than it is now in these defining moments of rapid technological progress in a commercialized system.