It was a wild year in healthcare. In 2018, the healthcare industry seemed to uncomfortably straddle two competing realities. First there is the present, where increasing costs and soaring rates of chronic disease and substance abuse are driving a desperate debate about how to best provide healthcare to our citizens. And then there is the hopeful future, where healthcare behemoths are learning to manipulate Big Data and rapidly developing technology in a quest to dramatically change the way empowered consumers interact with their healthcare providers.
Hoping to make sense of these currents, we conducted an informal poll of the leadership here at The Wellness Network, and here is what we identified as the top health stories of the past year:
Aetna and CVS tie the knot. No doubt one of the biggest healthcare stories of the year was the merger between insurance giant Aetna and CVS. Under the new deal, Aetna will operate as a stand-alone unit within CVS Health. The combined company will offer health insurance and other services like chronic disease management and preventive health screenings through walk-in MinuteClinics at CVS pharmacies. While the merger has hit plenty of regulatory and legal obstacles, it looked like it would go through as of late 2018 and potentially transform the way Americans access non-emergency healthcare.
Artificial intelligence gives us a glimpse of the future. AI, or data science, isn’t only promising to transform the future of healthcare delivery—it’s already started. According to Keith Dreyer, chief data science officer of Partners HealthCare and vice chairman of radiology at Massachusetts General, the ability to manage and analyze huge amounts of data is a game changer for almost every aspect of healthcare delivery. From algorithms that can read CT and PET scans to predictive analytics that can identify at-risk populations or a program that can analyze thousands of data points in a single patient’s record, our reliance on AI in the healthcare setting is expected to only gain speed in the months and years ahead.
The rise of social determinants in healthcare. “Social determinants” were buzzy in 2018, as healthcare providers began to take seriously how the “conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live and age” affect health outcomes. Social determinants sweep in everything from health literacy (a major focus here at The Wellness Network) to safe housing, language and cultural barriers, access to transportation, social support, and even diet and mental health conditions. As we gain a better understanding of how social determinants affect health, providers are using this knowledge to reach deeper into communities to provide better care.
Cryptohealth? If you’re a crypto currency investor, you probably had a terrible year—but that hasn’t stopped some of the largest players in healthcare from jumping into blockchain technology. In December, Aetna (as part of CVS) announced it was joining a pilot project called Synaptic Health Alliance, bringing its vast database of 22 million lives to an effort that already includes Humana, MultiPlan, UnitedHealthcare, and Ascension. Synaptic hopes to use blockchain technology to streamline and simplify the confusing provider directories patients rely on to find healthcare providers.
Non-health companies entering the fray. As if running the world wasn’t already enough, tech companies are jumping into healthcare in a big way. From Apple’s mission to put a health monitor on every wrist, to Google’s move into AI and personal devices, to Amazon’s partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, tech companies are staffing up with superstars from the healthcare industry and betting they can transform healthcare the same way they transformed the family call to Grandma at the holidays. Even non-tech companies are leaping at the chance: Uber and Lyft (which partnered with Allscripts) are both offering non-emergency transportation to help patients get to their doctors’ appointments, hoping to make a dent in the estimated 3.6 million missed appointments every year.
The opioid epidemic rages on. Barring wars or epidemics, life expectancy in the United States has been more or less steadily increasing for almost two centuries—up until the last few years. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, the U.S. is experiencing the most prolonged drop in life expectancy in the last 100 years, thanks in large part to the epidemic of overdose deaths caused by opioid abuse. It’s true there were some hopeful signs near the end of 2018—including a leveling off in the number of opioid overdoses—but with about 70,000 deaths a year attributed to opioid overdose, it’s clear that we have a long way to go in reversing a slow-motion health catastrophe that falls especially hard on impoverished, rural communities.
Obamacare survives despite the odds. With a hostile U.S. Congress and a president who vowed to tear down the Affordable Care Act—not to mention the high-profile repeal of the mandate that was the heart of the ACA’s enforcement mechanism—it’s amazing that the ACA not only managed to survive but has remained relatively stable. With a political hot potato like this, no one knows what will happen in the future, but it’s clear that some parts of the ACA, including protection for pre-existing conditions and the expansion of Medicaid, are now permanent features of the healthcare landscape.
We could go on, but we’re already looking to 2019 as we continue in our mission to produce the highest-quality patient education. So from our team to you, we wish you a happy 2019.
 U.S. News and World Report. “Artificial Intelligence Continues to Change Health Care.” https://www.usnews.com/news/healthcare-of-tomorrow/articles/2018-09-20/artificial-intelligence-continues-to-change-health-care
 Market Strategies. “Will Uber Health and Lyft Concierge Change Healthcare?” https://www.marketstrategies.com/blog/2018/09/will-uber-health-and-lyft-concierge-change-healthcare/
 Washington Post. “After a record number of U.S. deaths in 2017, the opioid epidemic may be receding.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/11/30/after-record-number-us-deaths-opioid-epidemic-may-be-receding/?utm_term=.88ca708d1404