These past two years have been a period of change, during which COVID dramatically shifted the focus to the importance of diagnostic testing. In fact, with the Omicron surge putting a further spotlight on the fact that testing is still needed even with widespread vaccinations, TIME has labelled 2022 “the year of testing.” Alongside this increased focus, however, are ongoing financial and regulatory challenges, including reimbursement compression issues (notably the specter of future PAMA cuts), the narrowing of provider networks, and regulatory hurdles such as the FDA’s authority over lab-developed tests (LDTs).
Even as we face these challenges, there are bright spots and opportunities to be had. There’s an enhanced importance on precision medicine, and the need for data and technology has never been stronger. Additionally, the healthcare industry is meeting consumer needs, accelerating telehealth and other avenues for access and insight, providing more convenience than ever. All of this is creating a new blueprint for the way we provide and consume healthcare.
Here are five key trends I anticipate taking root in our industry in the coming year:
1. Labs take advantage of expanded capacity
A trend that is turning a very dark cloud into a silver lining is the lab capacity and bandwidth that’s been created as a result of urgent COVID-19 testing. The pandemic meant that labs could shed some of their reimbursement compression constraints nationwide and create capacity, which is what the U.S. lab network needs to expand test menus and support other important types of testing, such as infectious disease and women’s health. This will also enable labs to handle genetic testing that was being referenced out prior to the pandemic, driving better turnaround times and efficiencies, and offsetting some cost compression as a result.
2. Consumer-driven healthcare = Patient-owned data
Consumers are more aware than ever about their own personal health, desiring specific medicines for individual needs, and wanting convenient and affordable care at the same time. We’re seeing this happen now through at-home testing for COVID-19. While various types of home tests existed previously, the pandemic has really brought them to the mainstream, resulting in consumers who are gaining familiarity with swabbing themselves, processing the test and obtaining results in a mere 10-15 minutes. Consumers are not only willing to conduct home testing but are increasingly demanding it – and payor coverage for tests will further support that consumers demand.
The ongoing trend of increased consumerism is driving another trend – data ownership. The much-discussed explosion of healthcare data is now shifting to be owned by the consumer, not payors or providers – changing how data is used and shared, and driving a different kind of focus on tech integration. Patients, particularly those with chronic illnesses, will increasingly take advantage of their data and the technology available to manage it. Diabetics who use a continuous monitoring device combined with a mobile app to stay on top of their levels are just one example of this, and ensuring their physicians get the information in real time is a logical extension. Genetic testing and biomarkers are beginning to be very meaningful for younger, healthier consumers - they’re getting educated about lifestyle changes that may prevent future disease down the road. We may soon live in a world where patients own their data and are using it to be healthier.
3. Basic healthcare moves to neighborhood pharmacies
Even before the pandemic, patients were starting to embrace more convenient care options for basic care services, like retail health locations and telehealth solutions. COVID-19 only intensified that, especially for pharmacies, who have been expanding their menus from flu and COVID vaccines to routine testing and basic care, on top of medication dispensing. But this goes beyond on-site care clinics staffed by nurse practitioners. Today, national regulations allow pharmacists to perform a variety of clinical services, and individual states continue to expand the list of allowed services, which creates more opportunities for labs to engage directly with pharmacies and their patients. Pharmacists are not only able to administer vaccinations, but increasingly also are able to draw blood, run tests, and prescribe oral medications. These added services provide patients with the ultimate in convenient care – especially for our aging population who would rather pop into their neighborhood pharmacy than navigate technology. Being able to support this trend and bring together pharmacies and diagnostic labs is why we acquired OmniSYS.
4. Increased emphasis on community oncology practices impacts patient care and labs
The pandemic has made it challenging for patients to obtain routine testing at a hospital location since most facilities had to prioritize acute cases and prevent healthy patients from being in risky situations. Now, we’re seeing an increased demand for oncology services – and community oncology practices are seeing a boon. These practices are private physician-owned entities, allowing for more direct and personal lines of patient care. Community oncology practices are expanding their services by using telehealth to re-engage patients. And with their services being more affordable than academic medical centers (saving tremendous dollars for Medicare and private payors on oral medications) and more convenient for patients, the emphasis on this type of “primary care” will be a big focus in 2022.
On top of patient care trends, the partnership between diagnostics and primary cancer care will be a huge strategy for labs in terms of specialization. Precision medicine is driving the need for more genetic testing, and with the increased capacity opened up by COVID-19, many labs are well-positioned to meet the need.
5. Digital pathology finally takes off
There was a lot of excitement around the promise of digital pathology several years ago, but it never really took off. Reimbursement issues combined with the difficult and time-consuming nature of prepping slides made it untenable. But now, AI companies are getting FDA approvals for diagnosis assist capabilities that drive tremendous efficiencies. For example, Paige Prostate became the first FDA-approved AI-based software that identifies prostate cancer to assist pathologists, and others are in the pipeline. This is the turning point.
In the coming year, we’re going to see a rapid shift to digital pathology and its many benefits including greater efficiencies and faster reads, cost reduction, and more precise diagnoses. The move to digital pathology will also support precision medicine, with quicker and more accurate slide reads speeding the time to genetic testing. This will result in greater coordinated care consultations among pathologists, radiologists and oncologists, truly enhancing the practice of precision medicine.
As we emerge from the darkness of the past two years, the changes we’ve been making – largely out of necessity – are creating the blueprint for healthcare in 2022 and beyond. Technology innovation in particular will be the key to supporting these trends, and will help us all navigate the shifting healthcare landscape and put the consumer at the forefront of living longer and healthier lives.