When the COVID-19 pandemic first began affecting the United States, the entire healthcare industry moved swiftly to leverage existing technology and practices to meet the intensive demands of the global health crisis. Amid this incredibly tumultuous year, however, the healthcare community has also been able to actively develop new solutions and approaches to address some of the biggest problems we face, both related to the pandemic and beyond.
We connected with some of the leading voices in health IT to find out what they considered to be the biggest innovations of the past year and how they expect the landscape will continue to evolve in 2021, from advances in patient experience to greater public health data connectivity and more widespread digitization.
We saw prolific adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions throughout 2020, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, provider organizations leveraged chatbots and other rudimentary virtual symptom screening tools to decrease infection spread and address patients’ care needs without placing even more burden on the workforce. As we continue living in a global health crisis, we will see more provider organizations leveling up AI-enabled capabilities to help manage patient volumes as they ebb and flow during COVID-19 surges. Specifically, we will see providers bringing mature, AI-driven diagnostic tools into the exam room to provide reliable “second opinions” on demand.
As providers work to address the pandemic, they will also adjust their practice of medicine to better meet the needs of their BIPOC patients. In 2020, COVID-19 and racial injustice has highlighted serious racial disparities and underscored how important it is for health leaders to improve diagnostic accuracy and outcomes for traditionally disadvantaged populations. In 2021, I predict we will see greater inclusion and representation of patients of color in our medical education curricula and resources, clinical trials, and pool of medical students and residents.
2020 will be remembered for many things but in terms of healthcare information technology (HIT), it was the year of telehealth. 2021 will be the year that patients, providers, and payers blow the doors off the idea that “virtual” equals “video doctor’s appointments.” Virtual HIT enabling doctors and nurses to do their rounds virtually from down the hospital hall or the other side of the world will grow in popularity. It’ll be the year that hospital bedside patient engagement technology demonstrates its tremendous value in enabling higher quality and satisfaction from a pandemic-safe distance. We’ll also begin to see an increase of terrific HIT solutions integrating with the data plumbing that is an EHR to finally give nurses new efficiency and satisfaction.
As we look forward to 2021, healthcare IT will see a continued focus on the COVID-19 pandemic response, including the highly anticipated roll out of a vaccine. Vaccine administration is a key component of an effective pandemic response plan at both a local and state level. Health information exchanges (HIEs) have the ability to ingest and leverage data, including demographic information, from individual access points of care across the health system and will play a critical role in matching the COVID-19 vaccine data to the correct patient. HIEs also have the potential to streamline the reporting of individual vaccination information to the state for analytics. Harnessing this technology to accurately track vaccine data in near real time will provide crucial insight around who has been immunized and who hasn’t; who has received which vaccine and any side effects in the event that multiple vaccines are available; the ability to target under serviced populations and support ongoing resource planning as we continue to navigate these unprecedented times.
The digital age has changed our interactions and expectations in ways both big and small—from how we shop and travel, to how we communicate and connect with one another. As with all other industries, the pressures and the possibilities of these technological advancements has spurred digital innovation in healthcare.
However, with the additional stressors of COVID-19, the healthcare industry’s acceptance and adoption of these applications has skyrocketed, as has the opportunity to explore creative uses of these platforms while examining ways to improve both outcomes and experiences.
Virtual care, broadly defined as remote interactions between patients and healthcare providers, has been a part of the healthcare delivery ecosystem for years. It has been an option for some patients, particularly for low-acuity episodic care where convenience is the highest priority when resolving the clinical need, but it has not been widely pursued nor embraced by either providers or patients until now.
In a recent survey of 1,000 patients who utilized virtual care in 2020, 72% had their first-ever virtual visit during the pandemic. With the sudden onset of COVID-19, convenience was no longer the sole driver for pursuing virtual care, but rather a combination of safety, speed of access, and convenience.
Given that the majority of patients using virtual care are new to this care delivery method, health systems need to educate the patient community on both the availability of these types of appointments and on what to expect before, during, and after them. In the aforementioned survey, 52% of respondents received outreach from their established providers, with an additional 15% and 13% hearing from their health system and insurance companies, respectively.
As the public is ordered to stay home to flatten the curve, healthcare systems are tasked to ‘raise the line’ by increasing staffing, adding beds, and moving to a telehealth model to keep patients out of hospitals. Clinicians who are not on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response are being asked to help assist the rest of medicine. During these virtual care visits, it’s critical for these clinicians to utilize clinician decision support software to aid in diagnosis and keep as many patients out of the acute care setting. These software systems can not only help triage cases of COVID-19 but also help quickly and accurately treat patients presenting with other conditions that still require care. Clinical decision support also supplements telehealth services to improve the patient experience, ease patient anxieties, and reduce some administrative burden for providers.
Response from Chris Caulfield, RN, NP-C, co-founder and chief nursing officer, IntelyCare
As a result of COVID-19, demand for healthcare professionals is at an all-time high, with nurses on the front lines providing care to patients in need. In this unprecedented time, nursing and other healthcare professionals need their provider organizations more than ever to support and protect them. One significant aspect of keeping nurses and their patients safe is COVID-19 education. The virus is rapidly evolving and nurses don’t always have time to find and walk through new COVID-19 protocols before each shift. Organizations can offer and promote online learning so that nurses can complete training on their devices and on their own time, and so facilities can ensure the entire workforce is well-equipped to treat and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Another way to protect facilities, staff, and patients from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19 is the implementation of an online symptom screening that enables workers to remotely verify whether or not they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Nurses that are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms can be removed from the shift without penalty, which can prevent the further spread of the virus to other nurses and the vulnerable populations they’re treating.
Response from Erin Jospe, MD, chief medical officer, Kyruus
With health systems needing to respond nimbly to the rapidly evolving landscape of caring for patients in the midst of a public health crisis, the key, as with any crisis, is to pursue a plan of action with thought and purpose. At a time when the majority of people seek healthcare information and services online, this principle and plan must extend to the role of digital access. The promise of digital technology is to leverage it creatively as a force multiplier, and to do so with an eye toward minimizing friction in care delivery and enabling the safest care possible. In the ambulatory setting, there are three distinct populations we need to think about servicing this way.
The first is the general population needing guidance on safely assessing their health while physically staying in their homes if at all possible. This is best achieved through the interplay of screening tools and virtual assistants with appropriate triaging for 1) those who can safely obtain self-care instruction 2) those who should have additional assessment through a combination of virtual appointments and direction for screening tests if warranted and 3) those who require immediate direction to the closest hospital or care facility. Screening engagement platforms, in conjunction with telemedicine, can decompress call centers, thereby freeing up staff, and help keep more patients safely at home.
In addition, more clinical staff can work remotely to provide virtual visits, maximizing the use of dwindling PPE resources for those who continue to serve on the front lines in direct patient contact. Digital technology can thus similarly benefit this second population, your health system staff and clinicians, by respecting their need for technology that works for and with them, promotes their physical safety, and conserves increasingly limited resources.
The third key population is patients with non-COVID medical needs, who require attention and outreach to help maintain their health. Digital platforms (e.g., telemedicine, automated outreach) can play an important role in keeping these patients well-informed, monitored, and safe, with clear access to information, both static and offered dynamically through real-time interactions when needed. Furthermore, those with chronic conditions that can become increasingly complex if left unchecked and where compliance issues may be exacerbated due to economic pressures, must be supported during this time even in the absence of acute symptoms – for their own well-being and to minimize the need to compete for scarce complex care resources.
While we all struggle to act quickly under these exceptional circumstances, using your digital investments to speak creatively to the needs of these populations is not only possible, it is necessary.
By Erin Jospe, MD, chief medical officer and SVP of account management, Kyruus.
As clinicians, we pride ourselves on our ability to provide care that meets the clinical needs of our patients and to call upon our colleagues when their skills are needed. We advocate for our patients in word and deed, and we are committed to our common mission of caring for our fellow human beings with warmth, sympathy, and understanding as much as with scalpels and drugs. We took the Hippocratic Oath, and we execute upon it in a deeply personal way.
However, for something that is inherently so personal for many of us, it is shocking to learn that so many of our patients—60%, in fact—are prepared to switch to another provider. It feels like a betrayal, and we can’t help but feel hurt just a little if we continue to cling to the idea that healthcare should be more than merely transactional.
Healthcare consumer research shows that patients do continue to value the quality of their interactions and experiences with us, with 84% saying that our communication skills and approach are extremely or very important to them. Likewise, 88% of respondents hold our clinical expertise in the same regard. So why are so many looking for new providers?
The answer is access. Access in the form of a sooner appointment. Access in the form of online scheduling. Access in the form of a more convenient location, accurate insurance information, and insightful feedback from other patients like them. Access is what matters when it comes to where and with whom consumers choose to receive their care.
Being seen quickly is consistently one of the top priorities consumers cite when selecting a provider. Nearly 60% have searched for a provider who could see them sooner and 39% have actually switched to see a different clinician as a result. We can conclude from this that having alternative sites of care and delivery mechanisms that can accommodate this need for timeliness can, at a minimum, keep patients within our networks.
Because convenience is such a prominent driver in patient behavior, we need to embrace it by either creating space within our schedules – which is often nearly impossible – or integrating with other care modalities, such as through virtual visits and urgent care or retail clinics, when appropriate, to ensure our patients’ needs are met.
We live in the digital age, a time of unprecedented information generation and information consumption. Consumers have grown facile in their navigation of the information industry landscape, and have developed expectations of ready access to the data they need to make better, more satisfying decisions for themselves as to where their time and money is most rewardingly spent.
Health decisions are no exception to this new paradigm. Just like the ratings, the cost, and the availability data people use to consider what shoes to buy or restaurants to patronize, more and more patients are seeking a similar level of information to guide their decisions for where and with whom to pursue their care. This is not to equate the more superficial decisions we all make with little consequence to the decisions we make when considering where to receive safe and clinically sound healthcare.
Finding a care team with the clinical expertise to navigate a person safely through their new cancer diagnosis is clearly a vastly different premise than deciding on a pair of boots to buy. That said, it would be naive to think that patients don’t behave like consumers when they can, or that the information they want to make those care decisions remains optional in the competitive market of attracting and retaining patients.
Indeed, studies of consumer behavior bear that out. Consumers want to make informed decisions, and more than half will go online to research providers before selecting one, typically starting with a general internet search. This desire for due diligence with additional research is true even when they have a specific provider recommendation in hand.
To meet patient expectations in the successful selection and scheduling of a provider, we need to acknowledge the importance of being able to readily access the desired information – information that makes it easier for patients to determine if a provider aligns with their clinical needs, logistical requirements, and personal preferences. Savvy health systems embrace the need to surface this provider data, and in so doing, attract and retain a broad customer base.
Certainly locations, cost, languages, gender, publications and education are among the other types of data that influence a patient’s selection of a provider. And this is to say nothing of how a picture of the provider, their professional statement, or their reputation as captured in online ratings and reviews can further assist in the conversion of a consumer’s interest into a booked appointment.
With so many different factors influencing a patient’s decision, the numerous online sources of that data, and the varied accuracy of the data that is available, satisfying customer demand for data can seem daunting to say the least. But health systems need to take action to consolidate, curate, and make this information available to attract and keep customers effectively.