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Q&A: Strategic planners identify digital health as their top 2021 priority. What does that mean for you?

By Colin GelbaughElysia Culver

July 23, 2021

    The ripple effects of Covid-19 will continue to affect providers and their strategic priorities across 2021. To understand what has changed since last year—and what has stayed the same—we re-surveyed strategic planners across the country about their goals, volume outlooks, and capital spending plans.

    This is the second in our series talking with our in-house expert, Colin Gelbaugh, about the results. In our first post, we focused on facilities. Here we examine the impact as a vendor, how all of this will impact your business and relationship with your customers.

    In this blog post, Gelbaugh, as the project director of the survey, will give us an inside look into the findings, and share how they will affect digital health and IT vendors.

    How Covid-19 has shifted strategic planning priorities

    Question: It's no surprise that providers see telehealth as a top strategic priority. What advice can you provide for IT vendors who do—and do not—offer solutions in this space?

    Colin Gelbaugh: Investing in technology and people to grow telehealth volumes was the number one strategic priority reported by every organization and respondent type in our survey. If you provide solutions in the telehealth space, you should ask your clients how their telehealth goals have shifted over the past year and push them to think on how they can keep their momentum.

    In our recent webinar on the survey results, we asked what providers think is next for telehealth, and 39% say they are looking to expand to modalities beyond virtual visits—including remote patient monitoring and asynchronous capabilities. Another 34% say they will attempt to improve the telehealth experience for patients and clinicians. As a telehealth vendor, think through how you can help providers advance in these areas.

    For those of you not offering solutions in this space, you will still experience ramifications from the interest in telehealth. For example, there will be facility adjustments to accommodate telehealth, and there will be a greater portion of people who will be working remotely.

    Site-of-care shifts will impact patient access and product volumes but allow you to educate and support your provider customers in targeted ways. Additionally, with the increase in remote work, providers will focus on maintaining their organizational culture as they make shifts. The importance of building a partnership with your clients will be critical as everyone manages a blended workforce.

    Q: We know that the focus on social determinants of health (SDOH) is a critical goal for providers. Are there any insights into what exactly providers are doing—or looking for—to address SDOH in relation to IT and digital health?

    Gelbaugh: Expanding efforts to address social determinants of health ranked as the fifth priority among the 19 tested, so it is top of mind across most of our respondents. Providers will have to pay particular attention to digital health inequities as a SDOH as they make new investments in technology and telehealth.

    Otherwise, inequities will only worsen and harm the patient populations who could benefit from them the most. We recently convened a group of digital health leaders on this topic to identify ways to address digital inequities. Some actions providers can take, and vendors can support, include:

    • Screening for digital health access and literacy and integrating that information into the EHR.
    • Partnering with community organizations and businesses to expand access. Providers may partner with local retailers or restaurants who can give patients access to broadband close to home.
    • Addressing sources of mistrust or non-compliance with digital health platforms. Providers may need to accommodate multiple languages or address security and confidentiality concerns.

    Q: What is the financial outlook for providers, and how will it impact existing relationships?

    Gelbaugh: Even though most respondents believe that volumes will return by the end of 2021, it will take a full year—likely until February 2022—to return to pre-Covid-19 revenue and margin performance. The survey indicated that providers of all types are looking externally first for cost savings—renegotiating supplier contracts ranked as the fourth highest priority.

    So, suppliers and vendors can expect some pricing pressures in the year ahead. For most, however, the financial situation isn't dire enough for providers to put off their top strategic objectives like digital health investments.

    Also, financial health will vary slightly across your different customers. In our survey, we interviewed health systems, community hospitals, integrated delivery networks (IDNs), specialty hospitals, and medical groups.

    Based on the results from these groups, we saw that larger health systems and IDNs report a much stronger return of patient care revenues compared to smaller health systems and community hospitals. To successfully build relationships with your prospects and customers, understand their differing budget priorities and constraints so that you can price your product or service appropriately.

    If any of your customers are in a tight financial place, consider helping them implement or improve already existing solutions.

    Q: What will take priority in providers' budgets? How important will IT and digital health solutions be?

    Gelbaugh: As mentioned, increasing digital interactions is a top strategic priority—especially since it intersects with supporting remote patient care, telework, and SDOHs. So, it is no surprise that IT and digital health technologies is the number one capital priority in the next year for every type of respondent across organization types and respondent roles.

    Clearly, Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of digital health technologies including telehealth, AI-based triage tools, chatbots, and scheduling platforms. However, this interest in digital health doesn't mean that providers will divert investments from other priorities. In fact, 70% say they will increase investments in new ambulatory care facilities. So, the shift to digital is not replacing these other sites of care.

    Overall, the increase in capital expenditures will be modest. There are still too many unknowns and unmade progress for providers to make any big moves. Vendors will need to focus on the data that makes a case for the efficacy of their solutions to stand out amongst competitors.

    Also, post-Covid-19, consumers will expect care experiences to be highly coordinated and highly digital, so help your provider customers deliver on digital experience so they can keep and attract consumers following the pandemic.

    Later this year, our team is conducting a survey to discover what drives providers' purchasing decisions for digital health and IT solutions. We want to find out what takes priority in providers' budgets, and what stakeholders are involved in buying hardware versus software solutions. Feel free to email me at to pass along any questions you would like to have answered by our survey and any other suggestions!

    Access more takeaways from our 2021 survey of strategic planners

    researchDownload these reports to get an in-depth look at:

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