4 healthcare predictions for 2022

By Caroline Watson | January 14, 2022


2021 brought many new challenges in healthcare, as we settled into the reality of new COVID-19 variants and the enduring effects of burnout throughout the industry. We sat down with four athenahealth leaders to hear where they think healthcare is headed in 2022. Perhaps unsurprisingly, burnout and related staffing challenges remain top concerns. But virtual care, value-based care, and automation may help healthcare organizations address these challenges and improve the clinician experience.

The “Great Resignation” will continue as long as the sources of burnout go unaddressed

Healthcare organizations across the country are struggling with turnover, early retirements, and low levels of trust and engagement. Barring major structural change, these challenges are likely to remain widespread. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, athenahealth vice president of research and editorial strategy Jessica Sweeney-Platt says it’s clear that the underlying causes of burnout and workforce instability aren’t going away.

“Trying to do 45 minutes’ worth of work in a 15-minute time slot, feeling rushed through patient encounters, having to sacrifice work-life balance for documentation completeness — all these things will not change, and they will have been compounded by the struggles of the past two years,” said Sweeney-Platt.

Sweeney-Platt believes creating a more connected, intuitive documentation experience will be a crucial part of the solution. “We can and will use data insights to wick work away from clinical teams, reduce friction in documentation, and minimize the burden of quality program participation. Contributing to a working environment for clinical teams that is more centered on the patient will move us in a better direction."

athenahealth chief medical officer Nele Jessel, M.D., agrees. “To stem the exodus of healthcare professionals, technology solutions that prioritize patient care and clinician and staff satisfaction will emerge as a must-have in 2022,” said Jessel.

A hybridized care delivery system

Virtual care is another key strategy healthcare organizations will continue to use to help reduce burnout, improve work-life balance, and retain healthcare talent. “Among other benefits, telehealth enables scheduling flexibility and autonomy. Clinicians can see patients where and when they choose,” said Sweeney-Platt. “Given the benefits to both clinicians and patients — chronic care management, behavioral health, even follow-up for procedural care — we expect to see virtual care continue its journey as a mainstream care modality in 2022.”

The exact course of that journey, however, will be shaped by federal policymakers, according to Joe Ganley, athenahealth vice president of government and regulatory affairs. It’s clear that virtual care is here to stay and will be an important tool for clinicians for decades to come. To that end, the Department of Health and Human Services has already taken steps to make it easier to provide virtual care, removing some barriers to telehealth usage and expanding the list of covered telehealth services.

“What remains is the question of whether clinicians will be adequately reimbursed for care that everyone agrees does not need to be delivered in person,” said Ganley. “I believe there is no going back. Congress and the Biden administration will enact policies to permanently expand telehealth and provide for parity of reimbursement for clinicians.”

With growing regulatory support, reimbursement parity, and the obvious benefit to clinicians and patients, we are likely to see a care delivery system that is truly hybridized in the coming year.

The transition to value-based care models will accelerate

The aging of the population and the growth of Medicare Advantage have already led many healthcare organizations to explore value-based care (VBC) models, a trend that will gain steam in 2022. “The focus will shift from episodic care to population health management,” said Jessel. “Technology solutions will support care delivery models that expand access to care to wider populations, lowering the overall cost of care and improving outcomes.”

The transition to VBC may also help address burnout challenges. “Compensation models that align financial incentives with patient outcomes and allow providers to see a reasonable number of patients per day will be an essential tool in reducing clinician burnout,” Jessel predicted. Shifting from RVU-based compensation to salary-based models will allow clinicians to build administrative time into their schedule to complete tasks they don’t currently have time for, reducing frustration and burnout.

Automation will improve workflows and the clinician-patient relationship

Though we’ve been talking about the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in healthcare for years, athenahealth chief data officer Jessica Macknight believes we’ll see meaningful strides in 2022. There will be an expansion of AI-powered ambient listening capabilities and a diverse set of AI-powered workflows spanning eligibility, scheduling, encounters, and denials management. “For companies like athenahealth that are treating AI as a basic ‘table stake’ and opting to invest in reusable AI-based services and engines over use-case specific point solutions, over time, the EHR platform will become iteratively more intelligent and more contextually aware,” said Macknight.

AI-based automation will lead to the evolution of intelligent EHRs that leverage the vast amount of information available — on both patients and clinician preferences and behavior patterns. “These intelligent EHRs will suggest next actions to the clinician and reduce time spent documenting and navigating the chart, allowing them to focus on their patients,” Macknight explained. “AI-powered EHRs will also be able to recommend orders, labs, and medications based on information entered during the encounter as well as all of the historical data available in a patient’s chart.”

AI will also help us analyze the vast repository of unstructured data generated by the healthcare system, data from faxes, scanned documents and images. Using Natural Language Processing (NLP) and object tagging, we are bringing ‘structure’ to unstructured data types, supplementing the patient chart where appropriate and giving end-users the ability to easily search unstructured information. “This will allow clinicians to have access to the most up-to-date and relevant patient information at their fingertips, without the burden of manually sifting through mountains of paperwork,” said Macknight. By extracting information about diagnoses and procedures, AI is positioned to help clinicians improve patient care and close care gaps.

Automating processes like reading medical images and assisting with diagnoses will give clinicians more time to focus on their number one priority: patients. “For example, if clinicians make the same orders based on a given diagnosis and symptoms, a machine learning model will recognize these patterns and can make recommendations for clinicians rather than requiring them to create orders from scratch,” said Macknight. “In 2022, these tools will evolve tremendously.”

Ganley agrees that automation will revolutionize healthcare. “The holy grail is a healthcare system that automates those functions that inconvenience patients, burden clinicians, and inflate costs for employers and the taxpayers,” said Ganley. “Just as in every other aspect of our lives, automation through technology should make healthcare better, smarter, and more affordable. Fueled by innovative entrepreneurs, accelerated by savvy investors, and stoked by sensible government policy, true automation in healthcare could explode in 2022.”