- Nearly two out of three healthcare leaders say they're currently prioritizing investment in telehealth as the pandemic continues, but that could change over the next few years, when investing in artificial intelligence shoots up the list of priorities, according to a new report from health tech giant Philips.
- Currently, 64% of health executives say they're focusing on telehealth when it comes to their digital health investments. But in the next three years, only 40% expect to invest heavily in virtual care, while AI emerges as a key area for investment: 36% of respondents to the survey of 3,000 C-suite executives and other healthcare leaders say AI is a priority today, but that grows to 74% by 2024.
- The report also found a rising focus on providing environmentally sustainable healthcare, and strong commitment to value-based care models — though the shift away from fee-for-service payments was set back by COVID-19.
The Future Health Index survey, conducted by Philips in December and January and published Wednesday, gives an outlook on health leaders' priorities during the pandemic and what the new normal could look like as investments shift post-COVID-19. The survey found particularly strong interest in building out virtual care offerings globally, reflecting historic levels of funding in the space over the past few quarters spurred by COVID-19, with that interest being particularly acute in the U.S.
"Things that might have taken 10 years to happen, happened in the span of six months," Aaron Neinstein, associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said on a Wednesday call with reporters on the survey results.
But priorities are expected to shift rapidly over the next three years as the pandemic hopefully enters the world's rearview. In three years, investing in predictive technology like AI and machine learning jumps up the list, with 80% of U.S. respondents saying it will be a top priority by 2024. Countries with emerging economies like Saudi Arabia, India and Russia will prioritize AI investment the most in three years, with 98%, 94% and 85% of respondents, respectively, saying it's a priority.
Roughly a third of European executives and a quarter of those in the Asia-Pacific region agree their hospital needs to invest in predictive technologies like AI and machine learning to be prepared for the future.
The concept of AI in healthcare raises concerns among many providers about potential operational and ethical problems with relying too heavily on algorithms in the exam room. Research on the efficacy of AI in the exam room is mixed, and many clinicians say it's difficult for them to trust suggestions from a machine they can't see or fully understand.
However, health leaders say there's a pivotal near-term opportunity to layer in AI to streamline cumbersome workflows and operational efficiency, and in spaces like R&D.
"When people think about AI in healthcare, they imagine a robot replacing a doctor, and I think that is the last thing that will happen," Neinstein said.
The survey also found environmentally sustainable healthcare is growing in importance. Sustainability jumped up global decisionmakers' priority lists from just 4% today to 58% in three years. Green healthcare is especially important in France (86%) and Germany (81%), and is more pronounced among leaders working in technologically advanced facilities (71%) and those in developed markets (65%).
The stress on environmentally conscious healthcare was "a surprise to us when it came out of the survey," Philips CMO Jan Kimpen said on the call.
This push is particularly important in the U.S., since its health sector is responsible for about a quarter of all global healthcare greenhouse gas emissions — more than any other nation, the report said. Despite some organization-specific steps, such as integrated health giant Kaiser Permanente becoming the first health system in the U.S. to reach carbon neutrality in September, there has been little widespread action in the sector.
A fourth of healthcare leaders in the U.S. say they've had to deprioritize plans to shift to value-based care due to COVID-19, solidifying concerns aired by VBC proponents last year that the pandemic might derail the movement's momentum. But in a bright spot, half of all leaders globally say they're either practicing alternative payment arrangements currently or plan to in the future.
Leaders' top priority today is preparing to respond to crises, with 69% choosing that option. However, that percentage plummets to just 3% by 2024 as the worst of the pandemic abates, Philips said.
And despite the public health crisis, health leaders say they're optimistic about the future, with 86% reporting they think their hospital showed resilience throughout the pandemic and 71% saying they're confident in the future.