10 years of progress in healthcare and technology equaled in just a few months. Discover what's next.

by Jason Rzutkiewicz, SVP of Client Strategy, YML

October 13, 2020

Every now and again society experiences seismic shifts. Now would be one of those times, as we see pivotal, decades-worth changes happening in the span of just a few months. Change is happening on all levels.

Jobs that weren’t possible to do remotely are now happening without missing a beat. People who have never used online grocery services now depend on it. Medical needs that couldn’t be met via a video visit now happen regularly. Shifts that have been building up for a while are moving society to think in more inclusive ways.

Many wonder when will we get back to normal. Yet, perhaps, the more productive question is—what does the new normal look like?

If we look to history as a guide, the 2003 SARS pandemic that permanently altered society offers similar parallels in digital transformations. Like today, retailers faced drastic disruptions to business (previously they were dependent on traditional retail channels). But within the climate of the SARS pandemic, Ecommerce in China grew by leaps and bounds, creating a fast-forward effect. Alibaba who had $10 million RMB in sales the prior year quickly soared to seeing that same amount daily. At the end of 2005, they reported $1.2 billon RMB in sales; a 120x increase.

In the last few months alone we’ve seen 10 years of progress equaled in just 12 weeks. 

Many wonder if people will revert to pre-COVID behavior once a vaccine becomes widely available. If we look at reversion patterns after the SARS pandemic passed, the clear answer was ‘no’ in that case. Ecommerce adoption and growth in China took off and never looked back. In 2019, China reported sales of $1.935T which was 3x the $611B reported in the United States.

Now, six months into COVID, we are seeing similar implications with an immediate and rapid acceleration of Ecommerce sales. Many retailers are reporting 100% increases in Ecommerce, impacting behaviors and society at large. In the last few months alone we’ve seen 10 years of progress equaled in just 12 weeks. 

While impressive, this current acceleration isn’t the same slingshot moment that we witnessed back in 2003. To find that we need to look towards digital healthcare. Pre-COVID telemedicine visits held at best, a high single-digit share of total visits.

That changed almost overnight.

At Kaiser Permanente, known to be one of the leaders in the use of virtual visits, telemedicine is now delivering 80%+ of care for its patients according to Prat Venama, their Chief Digital Officer. For those with a less mature trajectory, the impacts are even more dramatic.

Ascension Saint Thomas Health, located in Central Tennessee, conducted about 50 of 60,000 visits virtually in February. They now average 15,000 telehealth visits a month, a 300x increase. Whether it’s Stanford Health Care where televisits are 50 times higher, or Sutter Health who have seen the number of patients being served system-wide expand 175-fold by video visits, exponential growth stories are plentiful in today’s news cycle.

These changes have huge implications for the future of access in healthcare. And while many of these implications are positive, we also need to proceed carefully and inclusively as telemedicine has the potential to leave behind the ones that need it most.

Today, providers are struggling to reach vulnerable communities — including low-income and minority patients — during the pandemic. This can be directly linked to the safety net clinics provide for communities that don’t have the funds to support virtual care. This leaves those who are those most impacted by COVID at an inherent disadvantage.  

So what might the new normal look like? And how might we avoid the mistakes of the past and ensure it is equitable and inclusive? 

With as much innovation as there is coming online to advance telehealth, there is also a great opportunity to build additional, more inclusive, pathways within health care.

To begin with, COVID has forced many of the constraints that have previously held back innovation to be lifted out of immediate necessity. Reimbursement has been solved, cross-border care has been solved, and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will now reimburse for more than 80 additional services. These changes are now being made permanent.

Todd Askew, the AMA’s senior vice president of advocacy, said during a recent “AMA COVID-19 Update” video. “We have moved forward a decade in the use of telemedicine in this country and it’s going to become, and will remain, an increasingly important part of physician practices going forward.”  

Premera Blue Cross agrees and is launching its first-ever virtual primary care plan. Likewise does McKinsey who recently reported that virtual visits, which accounted for an estimated $3 billion before the COVID shutdown, could potentially account for $250 billion annually, a nearly 100-fold increase, within the next year. 

With as much innovation as there is coming online to advance telehealth, there is also a great opportunity to build additional, more inclusive, pathways within health care.

Patients who don’t have access to a greater resource pool (monetary, educational, social) can also miss out on health and digital literacy that is often needed to engage with these products. For many more, English may not be the primary language. These same patients are also less likely to own digital devices. How do we ensure that this doesn’t limit their access to care?

How can digital experiences help bridge these divides instead of widening them?

As technology managers, builders and contributors, the responsibility lies in our hands to create authentic spaces for as many different needs as possible. These issues must be addressed to ensure a new normal that is both equitable and inclusive.

And while these are exciting times, this slingshot moment is just the beginning. Using SARS as our reference point—eCommerce in China continued to grow by 50% annually in the decade that followed. For Digital Health the most meaningful growth and innovation still lies ahead. Will your healthcare organization play a role in this once-in-a-generation transformation? The window is now. We can help.

Illustrations by Kevin Tudball.

About the author: Jason Rzutkiewicz

Jason is YML’s Client Strategy leader, playing a critical role in helping brands navigate the complex digital landscape of web, mobile, apps, search, and data and bridging them with physical spaces to create seamless experiences. He currently leads the YML healthcare practice and has led crafting experiences across a diverse range of audiences from physician, nurses, patients, caregivers and insurers. He augments his understanding of the digital health landscape with a long history of delivering complex engagements across a wide variety of industries for companies like Walmart, T-Mobile, Sephora, Adobe, Honda, Wells Fargo, and Choice Hotels.  

Jason leads multi-disciplinary teams of strategists, media experts, creatives, interaction designers, technologists, data scientists, and more to deliver experiences that drive results and exceed business expectations. He is particularly sought after for his ability to create alignment, accelerate velocity, and quickly resolve issues.  Prior to YML, Jason was at SapientRazorfish from 2004-2018, before which he spent time with Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Diamond Management Consulting, and McKesson. Jason lives in Marin County with his wife and three children. He enjoys cycling and the great outdoors.