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The past year was challenging for all of us, but I've remained inspired by people in the healthcare industry who are demonstrating resilience and adaptability during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In the year ahead, I expect to see more disruption of the status quo, the continued acceleration of the trends that enabled virtual care and further innovations to help overcome information-sharing constraints created by the pandemic. I recently shared with MedCity News what we can expect in 2021:

Patient Health Information Sharing Will Be in the Spotlight

This year, there will be a higher expectation for information sharing. We will need to address how COVID-19 vaccines are distributed, what reporting looks like and how the data being captured is shared with pharmacists, doctors, health plans, as well as state and federal government entities. Additionally, broad swaths of society, including schools, retailers, restaurants, hotels and more, will want to know who is vaccinated in order to operate safely.

Our success will depend (in part) on keeping everyone involved in healthcare delivery and funding aligned as we move forward with this enormous challenge of data integration and standardization of the digital process. Specifically, we need to remove antiquated technology barriers, including the fax machine, from the healthcare process.

We had success with this in 2020. For example, health systems have leveraged Direct messaging to send more than four million electronic case reports for COVID-19 diagnoses to jurisdictions nationwide. Looking ahead, public and private interests will continue to come together to solve problems and handle new data requests from federal, state and local authorities managing large patient populations.

Pharmacists Will Administer Millions of Covid-19 Vaccines

The role of pharmacists expanded considerably in 2020, as these healthcare providers administered more childhood vaccines, conducted COVID testing, provided virtual counseling and more. In 2021, their role as health providers will continue to grow because these professionals will be essential in providing COVID-19 immunizations.

But the pressure of these added responsibilities is taking a toll on pharmacists' mental health and general well-being. Health IT tools like clinical direct messaging, prescription price transparency and enhancements to electronic prescribing can help pharmacists automate administrative burdens and satisfy patient needs. And, if 2020 is any indication of what's to come, the adoption of these tools will continue to accelerate in 2021.

Healthcare Consumerism Will Reach a New Normal

COVID-19 has changed the way patients receive care and interact with the healthcare system. Specifically, patients increasingly expect to know the costs of medications, procedures, office visits and more ahead of time. Patients have access to more price transparency tools, like drug discount cards and other online services than ever before. This year, more prescribers will leverage price transparency tools at the point of prescribing to meet patients' growing expectation when it comes to discussions about medication cost.

Other consumer services like drug delivery, home health apps and telemedicine have seen widespread adoption during the pandemic, indicating trends that will continue to gain momentum in 2021. And while in-person visits may return with COVID-19 immunizations, telemedicine is here to stay.

Delays in Essential Care Will Be a Systemic Issue

One of the calamities of COVID-19 is that patients have put off medical care. Some skipped routine screenings that are leading to missed and delayed cancer diagnoses, while others with chronic or complex conditions skipped essential treatment. Information about high-risk populations will be critical for health plans, providers and public health to address the latent risk of postponed care.

Patient activity in 2021, like provider visits, lab tests, procedures and prescriptions, will be closely watched. Will the system return to the status quo or reach a new normal that is more heavily reliant on digital interactions and transactions like healthcare reminders, helping patients manage their health? Trend data on essential activities like going to the doctor, getting a lab test, getting a medical procedure or getting a prescription, will tell us a fascinating story. 

Specialty Medications Will Drive Digital Innovation

Specialty medications comprise around 2% of total prescriptions written yet account for 40% of the total spend on medications. These medications are game-changing and life-saving—they cure hepatitis C, offer treatment for patients with severe immunologic illnesses or cancers and much more. But along with those specialty medications comes the need for a whole new way to manage them. Beyond the actual prescription, prescribers and specialty pharmacists need to exchange detailed clinical information, safely dispense the medication (including patient education) and provide ongoing care information for the patient. If information sharing for specialty prescribing is conducted via telephone and fax, it can lead to treatment delays for patients dealing with challenging, chronic conditions.

Given the growth, cost and complexity, specialty prescriptions will be increasingly digitized in 2021. Prescribers, pharmacists and patients' experience with specialty medications will improve thanks to new electronic tools making previously burdensome and manual administrative work swift or even automated.

Regulatory Drivers for Healthcare IT Adoption Will Continue Under a New Administration

The pandemic has significantly impacted the healthcare regulatory environment with a series of actions enacted over the past ten months. In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration temporarily waived the requirement for an in-person medical exam when e-prescribing controlled substances pursuant to a telemedicine encounter. In December, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced a final rule requiring that Part D providers use e-prescribing for controlled substances (EPCS) effective January 1, 2021. The rule implements a provision of the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act that became law in 2018. 

This federal mandate is supported by dozens of similar mandates at the state level. In fact, states with mandates effective in late 2019 or early 2020 demonstrated the greatest growth in adopting EPCS in 2019. This progress will only continue as EPCS requirements take effect in another 11 states in 2021

2020 taught us some important lessons, specifically, to expect the unexpected. It was powerful to see participants from across the Surescripts Network Alliance take a collective approach to tackle these challenges. And together, as we look to the future, one thing is certain—there will be a heightened need to securely share patient health data to help increase patient safety, lower costs and ensure quality care. In convening the Network Alliance, Surescripts is committed to being a trustworthy partner in bringing actionable intelligence to every participant. That means continuously working to protect the privacy, security and quality of the network and the data it carries.

A portion of this article previously appeared in MedCity News.