Demographic shifts are most acute in Europe and East Asia but could be a harbinger of things to come for US healthcare as well
Across the globe, major shifts in many countries’ demographics are starting to drive notable changes in how healthcare is delivered in these nations. Having fewer pediatric patients and more senior citizens is fundamentally altering what types of tests are in greatest demand from the medical laboratories in these countries. It is the population trend writ large on a global scale.
For example, in countries as diverse as Sweden, Hungary, Japan, and South Korea, birthrates are declining as fewer young people decide to have kids, or they choose to have smaller families. Thus, demand for pediatric care is declining in those countries.
Meanwhile, populations around the world continue to age as greater numbers of people reach their retirement years. Not only does this create the need to expand medical services designed to serve the elderly, but there are important economic consequences. That’s because each wave of retirees leaves fewer people in the workforce to support the healthcare of ever-growing numbers of senior citizens.
According to The New York Times (NYT), this trend is likely to accelerate. In “Long Slide Looms for World Population, with Sweeping Ramifications,” the paper reported that “All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.”
The NYT added that, “With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did—which is happening in dozens of countries—the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.”
In countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia, this is partially mitigated by immigration, the NYT reports. However, some nations, such as Germany and South Korea, have instituted programs aimed at boosting birthrates, though with varying degrees of success.
The authors, which included Terry Fulmer PhD, RN, FAAN, and John Auerbach, Director of Intergovernmental and Strategic Affairs at the CDC, noted that in 2018, adults 65 or older were 15.6% of the population. This will rise to 20% by 2030, when, according to the authors, seniors will outnumber the portion of the population that is younger than age five.
Foster an “expanded and better-trained workforce” to care for older adults, through enhanced training as well as “scholarships, loan forgiveness, and clinical internships.”
Adapt the public health system to account more for the needs of an aging population, such as by “improved coordination and collaboration with Area Agencies on Aging and key healthcare providers.”
Address disparities and inequities in healthcare access, such as social isolation “caused or exacerbated by social, economic, and environmental conditions.”
Facilitate advances in telehealth and other technologies to improve care delivery. “The lack of access to technology, low digital health literacy, and design barriers in patient portals and apps have disproportionately affected older adults, especially those in underserved communities,” the authors wrote.
Improve palliative and end-of-life care. “Many older adults are living with serious illness,” the authors wrote, and “most will live for years with their illnesses, resulting in a high burden of physical and psychological distress, functional dependence, poor quality of life, high acute care use, loss of savings, and caregiver distress.”
Reform long-term care, by improving conditions in long-term care facilities and making it easier for older adults to stay at home.
A perspective in the journal NPJ Urban Sustainability, titled “Ageing and Population Shrinking: Implications for Sustainability in the Urban Century,” notes that these trends have led some cities or countries to adopt technological innovations in healthcare, such as “socially assistive robots and virtual entertainment for mental health, roadside AI services for healthcare, and a series of innovations for house-based healthcare, digital nursing, and monitoring.”
Impact on Pediatrics
At the other end of the age spectrum, a recent presentation from the American Academy of Pediatrics noted a 13% decline in the US birthrate between 2007 and 2019. But a white paper from physician search ﬁrm Merritt Hawkins suggests this has not necessarily resulted in reduced demand for pediatric services, at least not in the US.
Despite the decline, “there are still about four million births in the US annually, and immigration adds to the number of children in the population,” the white paper notes. Even rural areas with aging populations “have far fewer pediatricians per capita than they require.”
However, according to The New York Times, in South Korea, “expectant mothers in many areas can no longer find obstetricians or postnatal care centers.” And the town of Agnone, Italy, no longer has a maternity ward because the number of births—just six this year—is below the national minimum.
This is important to note. If there are developed countries around the world where demographics point to a steady decline in population, then the type of healthcare provided will be different than what is currently used. Clinical laboratories and pathology groups in those regions can expect changes and should prepare for them.
Speakers at this week’s Executive War College in San Antonio explained that the way records are collected and stored plays a large part in the long-term usefulness of clinical laboratory data
Data structure as a term may not flow off the lips of clinical laboratory and pathology laboratory managers, but it should be top-of-mind. Well-structured data improves reimbursements and, in aggregated form, can be an enticing avenue to partnerships with outside parties.
Data structure refers to the makeup of digital records—in other words, how data is collected, stored, and accessed. Structured information offers consistency and is easier to analyze and share.
“You have to make sense of all that messy data, and that’s a heavy lift,” she said. “Results are not standardized.”
Appeals Payments Increase with More Clinical Data
Data quality can improve claim reimbursement appeals, Goede noted. When a more complete clinical record is provided to payors, they are more likely to reimburse for services.
According to information Goede covered along with Julie Ramage, Director of Precision Medicine Quality Initiatives and Partnerships at biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, when appealing a denied claim for a colon cancer molecular test, for example, the average appeal payment was $318 without cross-specialist clinical records.
Meanwhile, payment for a similar claim appeal which included that added data jumped to $612!
This information is often available, but may not be structured in a way that makes it easy to share with a payer. “You really have to be thinking about what elements you need,” Goede said.
Market for Structured, Anonymized Lab Data
Clinical laboratories that want to provide or sell anonymized, aggregated data to outside parties—such as research firms or pharmaceutical companies—also need to pursue efficient data structure. The re-use of existing, high-quality lab data can create a new business revenue stream.
“But it has to be more than that vanilla, male/female, date-of-birth stuff,” Ramage noted.
For example, she said, genetic testing builds up data registries, and that’s what pharma is looking for to find patients early on.
“If you don’t have a way to structure your data, you’re not going to be able to play in the sandbox,” she added.
How Clinical Laboratories Can Improve Clinical Data Structure
Here are some tips for clinical laboratory executives to consider as they tackle data structure:
Standardize how to enter patient information and test results. A common problem with data input is that the same information is entered differently over time. For example, various patient records might refer to dates in different ways: November 1, 2021, can also be entered as 11/1/21, 11/1/2021, or 11-01-21. Structured data uses a single way to list dates in records. This lesson applies to all similar clinical data.
Use dropdown menu choices instead of free-typing, open fields. An online box to enter a test result can create a variety of entries that affect data structure. While not perfect, drop-down options create a consistent set of entries, Goede said.
Ask patient advocacy groups about common nomenclature. Clinical laboratory data should reflect how patients speak, Ramage said. For example, do patients refer to genomic and genetic testing as the same thing? Establishing more consistency improves data structure as records are updated.
Enlist your organization’s IT or research team for help. Tech workers and principal investigators can easily look at clinical laboratory data and tell what information is missing or inconsistent, said Cheryl Schleicher, Director of IT Strategy at Northwell Health Labs in Lake Success, NY. Schleicher attended this week’s Executive War College.
Look Further into Clinical Laboratory Data Structure
Data structure can help clinical laboratories and pathology laboratories grab more reimbursement dollars and potentially sell anonymized data to external partners.
It is an area many lab executives are not familiar with and need to investigate more, particularly following the accelerated move to digital lab services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Your organization’s IT department or Chief Information Officer can be a useful ally.
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