Even if you're a pessimist, you'll probably agree that 2021 is shaping up to be a better year than 2020 (knock on wood). While the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, the end is finally in sight now that several potential vaccines appear to be both safe and effective. This means that investors need to start identifying the companies that will flourish as things get back to normal.

That said, the "normal" we return to is unlikely to be the same "normal" we knew before. Consumer preferences have shifted in potentially irreversible ways, and new technologies are leading the way like never before. Let's take a look at three stocks that are uniquely positioned to beat the market thanks to their innovations in the healthcare sector.

A man carries a briefcase and a hand mask in the same hand.

Image source: Getty Images.

AstraZeneca's vaccine is ready to undercut the competition

AstraZeneca's (AZN 1.67%) coronavirus vaccine candidate may not have been the first one preliminarily proven effective, but it could still be a best-seller on the market next year. Though management has opted to sell the vaccine at its estimated cost to manufacture ($3 per dose) through at least the first half of 2021, it reserves the right to pick a profitable price beginning in July.

Once it starts to make a profit from selling the inoculation, it can reap the rewards at scale and return growth for its investors. Right now, the company plans to produce up to 3 billion doses by the end of next year. By the third quarter, these profits will be reflected in its earnings growth -- and that's when the market might start to react with gusto. Keep a close eye on management's messaging regarding its deadline for selling the candidate at cost, and consider buying earlier rather than later to capture the largest swing.

Pandemic or no, people need braces

Even with the pandemic forcing dental offices to close or operate at a dramatically reduced capacity, Align Technology (ALGN -5.33%) increased its quarterly revenue by 21% year over year with strong sales of its Invisalign teeth straightener devices. When things get back to normal and people face fewer barriers to seeking preventative dental care, sales will likely grow alongside the stock. There's also evidence of pent-up demand that's waiting to be unleashed; the company's social media marketing campaign generated 118% more leads compared to the same quarter last year.

These leads refer consumers to licensed practitioners, but they also serve to evangelize the brand to clinicians who may not have heard of the technology. As more and more dentists use Invisalign, Align will also experience higher revenue from maintenance contracts on the hardware that fits the straighteners to patients' teeth. This is strongly positive for its long-term revenue potential because it means more and more recurring sales. And as if all that weren't enough, Align also plans to continue repurchasing its outstanding shares, which should provide even more upward pressure on its price.

Will Teladoc settle into its market next year?

This year has been absolutely explosive for Teladoc Health (TDOC 0.21%). With people everywhere forced to stay home and avoid in-person visits to their doctors, telemedicine became mainstream overnight. Using its roster of doctors and its capable online booking system, Teladoc was in the right place at the right time, linking anxious patients to healthcare providers over the internet. As its number of digital visits in the third quarter skyrocketed by more than 200% year over year, quarterly revenue increased by a whopping 109% to reach $288.8 million. It's clear that without a catalyst like stay-at-home orders and a global pandemic, the company won't be able to post similar growth next year.

But if Teladoc can prove that its care model can be profitable even when people aren't confined to their homes, it'll still be a powerhouse. Right now, Teladoc isn't profitable, but it's making rapid progress, even when taking the costs of its recent merger with Livongo Health into account. Similarly, management claims that 76% of U.S. consumers are now interested in using telehealth, and the company's membership base will be more than 50 million people by the end of this year. In other words, the company is well positioned in a rapidly growing market that it is serving more efficiently than before, which could make it a monster in 2021 and beyond. Don't let the stock's poor performance in the wake of the coronavirus vaccine announcements dissuade you: People will still want to have a doctor they can talk to anytime even when it's safe to visit their primary care clinic in person.