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What it’s like to be in healthcare consulting during COVID-19

It has been difficult to find any sort of silver lining in 2020. And while we’re still facing collective challenges across all industries, the healthcare industry has seen a glimmer of hope. HW Consulting Group Director Hal Wurtzel discusses what it's like to be a healthcare consulting during a pandemic, how the industry has changed, and what’s next for an industry dealing with so many short-term and long-term unknowns.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for healthcare clients between March and now?

We primarily work in four sub-sectors of healthcare: health systems, health payer, dental and other insurance, and life sciences. Providers shifted their focus to front-line service, as they were obviously triaging COVID-19 patients and learning to treat the virus. Life sciences companies also shifted their focus toward therapeutics and vaccine development for the virus. A lot was paused in those markets.

Both health and dental payers, on the other hand, had some very profitable months because claim volume was low. They actually invested—it was an easier time for them to experiment and we saw them work on back-office business processes, technology systems, and other areas that are difficult to change when business-as-usual is busy. On the dental side, they also chose to increase their provider engagement because there was a fear of them going out of business.

What is the overall state of the healthcare consulting market, and how is it different from a year ago?

While each sub-sector is different, they all experienced a similar cycle during the pandemic: panic, pivot, and then stabilization. Aside from working virtually, in healthcare consulting the overall state is somewhat back to business as usual—patients can no longer delay seeking care for other ailments and elective procedures and they’re also going back to the dentist.

In pharma, there are clear leaders in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, so the rest are returning to other drugs and therapeutics that pay the bills. However, digital has been accelerated. Most healthcare companies are still in the stone ages of digitization and this crisis has brought us further, faster. We’re helping clients across all sub-sectors in this area—for example, with telemedicine, make it a product that providers can offer, payers can compensate for, and consumers can use.

How much easier or more difficult has it been servicing healthcare clients with so much work happening remotely?

It has not been all that easy. The initial impression was that we were all going to get time back for not commuting or traveling. But that time has been lost to the inefficiency that comes from not “walking the halls” or having casual interactions with each other and with clients. We like to work elbow-to-elbow with our clients. We co-create and co-ideate, and we enjoy that dynamic. We still have clients whose culture, or Internet speeds, don’t allow the use of video so we can’t read body language or cues. This makes it more difficult in speed and nuance. With highly scheduled, highly tactical days, things seem to take more time.

On the positive side, the virtual nature does give our consultants more time with their family, increased flexibility, and more control over their lifestyle. As a result, we’re beginning to see the possibilities of this allowing some folks to stay in the job longer, which is super positive as we look to increase the diversity of backgrounds in the consulting workforce.

What has been the connection between COVID-19 and the adoption of telehealth?

Telemedicine is obviously not a new technology to come out of the pandemic. But its adoption among providers was key to their survival and patients who would have previously dismissed it had to consider it as an option. We’ve seen the data support this: In our survey of 1,500 consumers in three major U.S. cities, we found that their use of telehealth nearly doubled over a six-month period, from 27% before the pandemic to 49%.

We also found that these new habits are likely to sustain. Just having telemedicine is not a strategy, though, and that’s why we’re working with providers, systems, and payers on their overall virtual health strategy. Telemedicine is just one part of an overall experience for patients and should be deployed where it makes the most sense—our survey showed people are more likely to use it for services like lifestyle support and primary care and less likely to use it for eldercare and specialist visits.

What have been some of the biggest consulting opportunities to arise out of the pandemic so far?

The biggest opportunity is the acceleration of digital. It’s no longer a choice, and there is an insistence—not just from the executive team, but from all stakeholders—that the healthcare industry does things differently. A specific example would be the pre-validation and paperwork you fill out at the doctor’s office—the push to make that self-service and digital during the pandemic was huge. Healthcare is still behind other industries and the opportunity is finally here to collectively elevate the ecosystem.

The pandemic, I think, has gained the buy-in of the industry and all the folks who work within it to be more digital-forward, more patient-centric, and understand that these goals are actually achievable—that they can actually administer healthcare differently.

What are some areas of growth you anticipate in the healthcare consulting market going forward? How much of a role will the state of COVID-19 play?

I hope the spotlight on the inefficiencies has given way to the much-needed improvements and will outlast the immediacy of the pandemic. The continuation of digital is an imperative and the combination of business and technology consulting needed to support this, we feel, positions HW Consulting Group very well.

The state of COVID-19 definitely plays a role: If it comes back with a huge resurgence, it keeps the focus on the overwhelming demand on providers and increases pressure on life sciences companies. It could also shed light on insurers that continue to collect premiums while services go unused. Several car insurance companies refunded premiums during the pandemic because people were driving less often—people may start demanding the same from health insurers. We may also see more people become unemployed and lose their health insurance, which affects the entire ecosystem’s ability to take on the improvements that they need to.

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