Annual Reflections on Healthcare

As 2021 comes to a close, it’s time to look back on yet another year of challenges and innovations. The pandemic has made an imprint on every part of the healthcare system. Here, we’ll review some of the biggest issues from 2021 and take a glimpse into the future.

Health inequity and disparities

Generations have struggled from socioeconomic disadvantages. Health inequities have become systemic and deeply embedded into society, making them difficult to change over time. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices have highlighted these problems even more in 2021.

Several things can affect a person’s ability to secure their health and safety needs. These factors impact everyone’s personal environment and are called social determinants of health.

  • Access to food
  • Access to quality healthcare
  • Social and community environment
  • Economic stability
  • Neighborhood and built environment
  • Access to quality education

As discrimination, racism, or other inequities affect a person’s daily life, it’s easy to see how their health may suffer. Here’s an example of how race and income levels make it more challenging to stay healthy.

  • A person of color with lower income lives in a neighborhood with more crime and fewer healthcare clinics.
  • Racism and discrimination make it difficult to find training they can afford close to their home so they can land a better paying job.
  • Job limitation makes it harder for this person to move up and out of the area.

Health inequities have remained in the spotlight throughout 2021. Will this attention drive progress in the near future?

The opioid epidemic

The US media has widely covered the opioid epidemic over the last decade. Healthcare providers have looked at the data, tried to push for changes, and have more plans for the future. Despite these efforts, opioid-related deaths have not shown signs of a decrease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the issue worse, according to data reported in September of 2021. All states have recorded spikes in death and opioid-related health issues in 2021. Ongoing stress and uncertainty from the pandemic have pushed people to the brink, some of whom are vulnerable to opioid misuse.

Healthcare providers are collaborating in several ways to stem the tide of opioid-related harm as 2021 comes to a close. Here are the key suggestions:

  • Reduce barriers to effective treatments and harm reduction methods.
  • Reduce the red tape and time-consuming steps to make it easier to address addiction with medication to treat opioid use disorders (MOUD).
  • Make better use of existing treatment options and use best-practice methods to make treatment more effective.
  • Educate employers about the benefits of opioid treatments.
The COVID-19 pandemic

Two key aspects of the pandemic made headlines in 2021 and will remain at the forefront as we head into 2022.


The COVID-19 delta variant has added more uncertainty to the course of the pandemic. The year began with the vaccine rollout, first made available to essential workers and the elderly. Vaccine access was opened up to the general adult population by the late spring, giving hope that the pandemic might soon be under control.

However, the delta variant has created surges and prompted a return to some protective measures, such as masks. With different behavior from this variant and vaccinations in place, the landscape of the pandemic changes from month to month.

Virtual health

Virtual health was in the spotlight for the second year in a row. After a hasty expansion in 2020, telehealth and other forms of virtual care settled in during 2021.

In 2021, virtual health has played a bigger role in healthcare, but its rapid growth has also highlighted some troubling trends. Black and Latinx consumers were more likely to have issues during their virtual healthcare visits than white individuals. Despite this, the need for quality virtual health services is unmistakable, and the opportunities to improve virtual health services are wide open in 2022.

The nursing shortage

A nursing shortage had already developed before the pandemic for many reasons. The baby boomer population has created a large elderly population needing skilled care. Nursing programs have faced faculty shortage and many nurses are reaching retirement age. These issues have put more pressure on nurses currently in the field, accelerating the rate of burnout and nurses leaving the profession.

The pandemic also pushed the boundaries of the nursing shortage. Hospitals and clinics took teamwork to another level as COVID-19 hospitalization rates swelled across the country. And while some of the solutions were innovative and critical, burnout among nurses and other healthcare professionals skyrocketed.

Early retirements and exits from the healthcare industry have become more common than ever in 2021. Also, low vaccination rates in some regions have added frustration for healthcare workers. A smaller number of nurses across the country also decided against vaccination, which sometimes meant leaving their nursing jobs.

Cybersecurity threats

The rapid changes from the pandemic made it more challenging to focus on cyber threats. The number of exposed records and breaches have fluctuated throughout 2021, highlighting the challenge of keeping medical records safe. Healthcare data breaches and ransomware attacks commonly affected hospitals and insurance companies. But they also targeted outpatient and specialty clinics, marking a somewhat unexpected trend.

These attacks are not new for larger healthcare businesses, and the focus on smaller clinics may look surprising at first. But smaller budgets make it harder for local outpatient clinics to pour resources into cybersecurity. This makes them easy targets for a breach.

Attacks often come from hackers on the outside. But insiders with access to sensitive health information can also create a breach. Even apps integrated with healthcare services have been affected. One incident made 4 million health records vulnerable.

Cyber attacks represent a complex threat to everyone’s personal health information. And healthcare businesses of all sizes will need to keep their eye on software updates and security threats into 2022. Going forward, healthcare businesses will need to make cybersecurity a priority budget item to stay a step ahead.

Reflecting on 2021, looking toward 2022

Healthcare doesn’t stand still, and it certainly can’t as we go into 2022. As the pandemic continues to press on the healthcare industry, more struggles and opportunities will emerge as we move forward into the new year.

Read more population health articles on the AIHI Blog