After a year when health care remained top of mind across the nation, 2021 should be another year with the industry in the spotlight. The COVID-19 pandemic and its complications continue to be a source of concern. You can expect to see the emergence of changes in health care for 2021 helping the nation move forward.

There are challenges to overcome in 2021, but some positive developments are likely to advance the medical field and empower Americans to receive a higher quality of health care from now on.

2021 Health Care Challenges

In 2021, some crucial hurdles will shape the health care industry. The pandemic’s ripple effects will continue to be a major focal point, as will health care reform considerations.

1. Overcoming the COVID-19 Crisis

For the health care industry as a whole and for individual Americans, COVID-19 will continue to be a chief concern, and rightly so. The COVID-19 crisis was all-consuming in 2020. Compared to the overwhelming effects the health care industry experienced last year, this year — which has already seen declines in daily case counts — may seem like a breath of fresh air.

However, we still have a long way to go before the crisis is behind us. As of Jan. 21, 2021, the Secretary of Health and Human Services renewed the public health emergency associated with COVID-19.

According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, four crucial factors will determine how COVID-19 numbers evolve in the coming months. Two of these — rising vaccination numbers and declining seasonality — are likely to bring cases down. The other two — the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant from the U.K. and the potential for riskier behaviors that promote transmission — may have the opposite effect.

2. Addressing Mental Health Issues

In 2020, the immediate need to preserve Americans’ physical health took precedence. Even for many of those who managed to stay physically healthy, the pandemic took its toll mentally. The health crisis and the measures to control it have left many people with new or intensified mental health issues. That’s why mental health will be one of the most significant challenges we’ll face in 2021.

Economic struggles, fear of the illness, disrupted routines and other pandemic-related hurdles have been anxiety-inducing for many. Social isolation has also caused strain, especially on people who already struggled with depression and other mental health disorders. Those with eating disorders and substance use disorders may be experiencing a lapse in their recovery due to a lack of structure and social support.

The silver lining is that the pandemic gave rise to more empathetic and realistic discussions of mental health, which have helped lessen the stigma surrounding this topic. People may be more open to seeking therapy or counseling this year.

3. Negotiating Health Care Policies

A third challenge that will shape health care trends in 2021 is the struggle over how best to improve our nation’s health care system. The pandemic raised awareness of some of the issues with our existing health care system, including inequities resulting from social determinants of health, and the new presidential administration is likely to mean new policy proposals. However, some factors suggest that, while conversations surrounding health care reform are likely to occur this year, no major reforms are on the docket quite yet.

For one, there is plenty of polarization over the best way to improve our system. The most critical point of disagreement in current conversations hinges on whether fully nationalized medicine or a public option would be a positive alternative over a mostly privatized system.

A 2020 study by Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Republicans believe it is not the federal government’s responsibility to provide a nationalized program for health care coverage. However, most of these respondents agreed that Medicaid and Medicare should continue. In contrast, 88% of Democrats believed health care is the federal government’s responsibility, with 44% calling for a single national government program.

Since the Democratic Party has narrow margins of control of the government, a drastic change of any kind isn’t likely to come, at least not this year. Instead, the Biden administration will likely focus on strengthening and reaffirming the Affordable Care Act. Medicaid enrollment is likely to grow as a result of the recession.

2021 Health Care Trends

So, what’s changing in health care this year? Expect to see some existing trends gain traction and some new ones move into the spotlight. Let’s look at some of the top health care trends in 2021.

1. New Emphasis on Home Care

With more than a third of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. linked to nursing homes, it’s no wonder people are questioning whether there’s a better alternative for adults who need ongoing care. Having vulnerable populations in proximity can cause residents to contract contagious illnesses and devastating infections, despite round-the-clock care. Because of the risks associated with residential care facilities, 2021 will see fewer nursing home residents and more patients receiving in-home care.

In 2020, doctors referred fewer patients to nursing homes, and that trend is likely to continue. Additionally, families deciding how best to care for their loved ones will increasingly choose in-home care services over residential care facilities. That means having nurses, physical therapists and other health care professionals come to a person’s home to check on them and perform routine care.

While this care model has been around for a while, developments in med-tech have improved the sophistication of home health care, making it possible for providers to monitor patients’ vital signs remotely so they can detect potential issues right away. These technological advancements will contribute to the rising popularity of home care.

2. Widespread Adoption of Telemedicine

You would be hard-pressed to find any discussion of health care predictions for this year that doesn’t emphasize virtual health services. Though the American Telemedicine Association has been around since 1993, the health care industry has been slow to adopt telemedicine. Last year, virtual health services took a notable step forward, as many health care practices and systems found alternative care delivery methods. Federal and state emergency measures helped fund this virtual move.

Because providers and patients have become more familiar with virtual health services and have discovered their benefits, telemedicine should become increasingly mainstream in 2021. We can expect to see more traditional health organizations offer telemedicine alongside disruptors this year. Many patients may use a combination of in-person and virtual care through their local provider, rather than opting for purely virtual services from telemedicine companies.

Notably, Medicare started covering telemedicine for the first time in 2020. Though this was an emergency measure, some predict Medicare will continue covering telemedicine permanently. Seniors can benefit from the frequent medical check-ins that are more feasible through telemedicine. As people become increasingly used to telemedicine, many are likely to prefer it over driving to a doctor’s office, sitting in a waiting room and potentially exposing themselves to illnesses.

3. Expanded Role of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence has revolutionized many aspects of our daily lives, and health care technology is no exception. In 2021, AI development will continue, and the AI and machine learning that have developed over the past years will increasingly manifest in practical ways that benefit individual patients, providers and the industry as a whole. AI’s applications are widespread. One example is that AI can automate some administrative tasks, such as billing, pre-authorizing insurance and recordkeeping.

On a larger scale, AI can analyze masses of data to find patterns and valuable insights humans would likely miss. These insights can push clinical research forward. AI and machine learning can even help hospitals improve diagnoses and patient outcomes. According to Forbes, AI technology can help hospitals predict patients’ risk of cancer, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease, among others.

Hospitals are already leveraging AI to help physicians make more data-driven clinical decisions for their patients. For example, Google Cloud uses machine learning to form insights from users’ electronic health records. These insights can help clinicians plan the best way to care for a patient and avoid complications that land them back in the hospital. AI will continue to have a positive effect on the health care industry in 2021 and beyond.

4. Rising Popularity of Online Pharmacies

While so many people stayed home in 2020, e-commerce — which was already booming — got a significant boost. Americans are increasingly turning to online ordering to shop for everyday essentials they would have previously bought in a local store. Most Americans still go to a pharmacy to fill their prescriptions and pick up refills. However, that may start to change.

E-pharmacies are beginning to become more popular. In the U.S. alone, experts predict the industry to reach a value of $155.4 billion by 2026. Some people feel waiting a few days to receive medications is worth it to avoid the hassle of lining up behind their local pharmacy counters.

In November 2020, Amazon made waves by starting Amazon Pharmacy, which will allow users to have their prescriptions mailed directly to them. Because of the trust consumers already have in Amazon’s service, the e-commerce giant will likely take meaningful business from traditional retail pharmacies. Amazon Pharmacy may also draw consumers because it will allow them to compare drug prices. They can save money on generic and name-brand prescriptions if they pay for these meds out-of-pocket.

5. Advancements in Precision Medicine 

Precision medicine, also called personalized medicine, refers to customizing therapies or medications to tailor them to a patient’s genetic profile. This level of precision can improve medicine’s effectiveness and can even cut down on unwanted side effects. Precision medicine is possible through genome editing — a field that has already profoundly impacted the advancement of medical treatments.

Genome, or gene, editing involves changing an organism’s DNA. Gene-editing technology makes it possible to shape the traits, or phenotypes, that new genetic material will have. Through techniques like the CRISPR-Cas9 system, scientists have made advancements in treating chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. Researchers at Stanford University have also used this technology to create a handheld device that can detect whether someone has COVID-19 within 30 minutes.

In addition to this helpful tool, in 2021, gene-editing technology is likely to lead to more sophisticated advancements in personalized medicine. Soon, patients may expect to receive customized medications for their bodies.

What’s New in Health Care for 2021?

Overall, we expect to see health care in the spotlight again in 2021. Last year, people became aware of how critical their health and well-being are to their daily lives. In addition to individuals and families prioritizing their health, employers faced the importance of their employees’ physical and mental health in new ways. In 2021, health will remain a focal point for the nation, and mental health will take on a new level of emphasis.

Though we’re far from out of the woods, vaccine availability means the COVID-19 pandemic could become less of a threat this year. As that danger subsides, the medical community will focus more heavily on how we can leverage cutting-edge technology to improve our health care system and health care outcomes for patients all over the country.

Discussions about health equity and social determinants of health will be prominent in public discourse as political leaders negotiate how best to serve all Americans’ health care needs and rebuild our economy. This year brings plenty of uncertainty, but it also holds promise for advances that will improve the convenience and quality of care Americans receive.

Find a California Health Insurance Policy to Fit Your Needs

If you need health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. government has declared an extended enrollment period that began Feb. 15 and will last through May 15 due to the COVID-19 emergency. You can purchase a policy right away for yourself or your family. You can also enroll in a new plan if you have lost your coverage or have experienced another qualifying life event.

If you’re a Californian who wants health insurance coverage, Health for California makes it a breeze to browse through your options and compare plans. Review what each plan type covers and whether it fits into your budget. No matter what happens in the health care industry this year, one thing is sure — you’ll rest easier knowing you and your family have insurance to cover your medical expenses, both expected and unexpected. Make 2021 a positive year for health, and start with the right health coverage.

Not sure how Obamacare affects your health care plans in California? Learn how the ACA works in California, including benefits, costs and enrollment.

Covered California is the Golden State’s official health exchange marketplace where individuals, families and small businesses can find high-quality, low-cost California government health insurance.

Learn about Obamacare income guidelines in California using our income limits chart, and see if you’re eligible for government assistance.

Learn about the Covered California website. Find easy online enrollment. Set up your account, log in, buy insurance and more on the California health marketplace website.