“Innovate or die” has taken on a whole new meaning in the last month thanks to COVID-19. From building ventilators with car parts to hospitals repurposing video conferencing apps for patient engagement, a pandemic changed the world and innovations changed the delivery of healthcare. In a post-pandemic world, failing to have a virtual engagement strategy isn’t just unwise, it’s potentially fatal; for patients, staff and a sustainable business model.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and while telehealth was “invented” a long time ago, it’s here now, and it’s here permanently out of necessity. There’s been much written about this recently, but we also have to acknowledge all the other ways healthcare will need to be ready for what’s next. Because one thing is for sure – healthcare will never be the same.
As of May 12, there are currently 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 in the US, and 82,799 deaths due to the virus. By the time I’m done writing this, those stats will be higher. By the time this article is published, those stats will be higher still.
While our minds immediately go to those in healthcare who are fighting COVID-19 on the front lines – the doctors, nurses, technicians, and countless support staff in hospitals and clinics – it’s important to remember that all of healthcare is suffering in some way. While half of healthcare is working long hours in dangerous conditions without proper PPE, the other half of healthcare is out of work.
There are few elective procedures right now, which displaces all the staff associated with those types of hospitalizations – surgeons, surgical nurses, etc. Healthcare as an industry is learning to cope out of necessity. But hopefully we’re also learning some valuable lessons about what’s possible for the future. And some of those lessons will set the new standards of care.
While it took years and massive federal investment for healthcare to adopt technologies like EHRs, in mere weeks we’ve seen an exponential increase in use of virtual/digital engagement tools.
Patients are embracing the convenience and safety of “distance medicine” enabled by these solutions. Whether patients were simply unaware of the option or maybe distrusted telehealth, their fears and hesitations about it are gone.
Response from Oliver Lignell, vice president, virtual health, AVIA
Providers have a new tool to help them combat COVID-19: digital. Health systems are proactively leveraging digital assets to help triage, navigate, and treat cases in ways that address concerns and also reduce the spread of the virus to other patients and providers.
Virtual assistants and chatbots can help consumers explore symptoms, accurately triage their needs, and navigate them to the appropriate site of care. These solutions can both reduce consumer worries and potentially inappropriate use of EDs and urgent care clinics.
Virtual visits are another critical digital tool because they allow patients to complete a visit from the safety and comfort of their home without exposing them to crowded and potentially infectious clinical locations and, just as importantly, reduces wait times and crowds at in-person care sites.
Asynchronous virtual visits (store and forward, text/chat) can also be an important (and low-cost) solution. Consumers can initiate a low acuity visit on-demand, when convenient, ensuring their concerns are addressed when desired – with the added benefit of decreasing wait times, creating a more efficient patient flow, and freeing up provider capacity. Such solutions further reduce the pressure on health systems while improving the responsiveness to patients.
Response from Andrea Tait, vice president of Client Value, Orion Health
Digital tools can play a key role as healthcare providers across the globe struggle to maintain the health of their workforce and the capacity of their organizations. Pandemic response is best supported through triaging, testing and treating the affected. Tools like public-facing screeners, pandemic information sites and chatbots can help evaluate millions of people with little to no clinician support.
By triaging individuals, tools like remote patient monitoring and telehealth can be used to monitor patients from their homes and assure others that sheltering in place is sufficient. Remote monitoring tools allow clinicians to monitor more patients and make decisions about who may require testing. Designated testing sites minimize the need for direct interaction between healthcare providers and patients, preserving both the health and capacity of health service providers.
Integrated care pathways and telehealth tools can help clinicians treat more patients at home and discharge those in hospitals who may be safer receiving treatment for other conditions remotely, all while minimizing their own risk. Home and community delivered care is an increasingly essential component of healthcare system sustainability. Now, more than ever, these tools and strategies are fundamental to the future of the healthcare system.
Digital solutions can be employed in seemingly non-traditional ways to both prepare and respond to the impact of the coronavirus. For healthcare organizations, traditional pre-access telephone dialing metrics can be modified. Hospital registration staff, in addition to financial guidance and scheduling, can screen patients for COVID-19 and obtain additional clinical information in advance of arrival.
By identifying potentially infected patients, even before they enter the hospital, hospitals and clinics are able to communicate effectively within the facility and plan for appropriate patient care, monitor and manage potential for healthcare personnel COVID-19 exposure, and inhibit the spread of the disease both within the facility and community.
Equally important and sometimes forgotten, back-end services provided by both hospital staff and revenue cycle vendors yields the same patient communication opportunities. Discharged patient follow up and screening post-discharge keeps the patients connected and engaged with the hospital as well as preserves an open communication line between the hospital and discharged patient.
Response from Matthew A. Michela, president and CEO, Life Image
The coronavirus has manifested the importance of digital solutions and interoperability in a heightened way. The lack of digital connections to community referral sites will impact the safety of patients and healthcare staff. It is imperative during this public health crisis that attending healthcare workers have as much relevant clinical data in advance as possible through digital connections.
Unfortunately, many healthcare organizations are still deploying outdated technology, such as imaging CDs, and the last thing a provider or hospital should want is a patient who is symptomatic or potentially a carrier of a virus to show up with a CD in hand. This presents a problem on multiple levels, from the lack of care coordination to the risk of disease spread.
The technology is available and many large health systems are set up to support digital exchange, so they need to mandate protocols to exchange information in this manner. In the same way that the public is asked to wash their hands and frontline workers are urged to wear masks, healthcare professionals should insist that medical data is received digitally for fast, efficient care.
As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for hospital organizations to ensure information is delivered in real time, accurately, and highly customized to the intended audience (patients, visitors, clinicians, etc.). It can be beneficial for hospitals to automatically deliver COVID-19 patient education videos tailored for each patient’s demographics, language, and clinical circumstances.
This also includes educational content and notifications (visitor restrictions, live updates, social distancing practices, etc.) on digital signage locations in public areas throughout hospitals. That content can be delivered in notifications or in response to Real-Time Location System (RTLS) triggers (for example, if a clinician enters the room, the patient’s TV will display hand washing reminders).
RTLS integration can also track and report staff entries into patient rooms so hospital leaders have real-time data about potential exposures, isolation violations, or interactions with non-approved staff. Interactive surveys with branch logic can help guide patients to provide vital feedback and report any hand hygiene breaches. Digital meal ordering, service requests, and virtual visits decrease human-to-human contact while helping patients get the food, care, services, and items they need. Live streaming (either soothing content like an aquarium or information sources) can also provide distraction therapy and education for patients in isolation.