In a public health report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the state of the U.S. public health technology was likened to “puttering along the data superhighway in our Model T Ford.”
While the healthcare industry has talked about improving data interoperability with the noble goal of breaking down data silos to better coordinate care and turn data into information, the business of healthcare resisted meaningful change. The status quo that traps data in its silos helped to serve the interests of big, incumbent vendors by locking provider customers into their proprietary tech stacks. In turn, some providers believed they too could protect against patient leakage by holding medical data captive.
Data interoperability is stuck in the past
Even though patients have had, since 1996, a right to access their own information under HIPAA, the healthcare system made it really, really hard to obtain that data. Life Image recently conducted a survey of 1,300 patients and found that 40% of patients had to go to their provider’s office in person to submit requests for medical records. Additionally, 40% received those medical records on a CD, a 1980s technology that is obsolete in the modern consumer world.
In all other industries except healthcare, data requests, collection, storage and exchange are commonplace, and available at your fingertips at any hour and any day of the week. While patient satisfaction and convenience seemed to be worthwhile healthcare goals, they weren’t enough to drive significant, wholesale change and conversion from protectionism, managing resources to optimize the physician rather than the patient, or stubbornly persistent operational practices using CDs.
Nothing happens until something happens
The federal government recognized this inertia and promulgated a lengthy set of interoperability rules in March 2020. Just days later, the force and fury of COVID-19 started hitting the U.S. and created a public health emergency that exposed the significant operational risks and clinical dangers created by the lack of interoperability. Frictionless data sharing was no longer an existential threat. All of a sudden, the hazards became tangible.
The paradox is that COVID-19 has manifested the critical need for exactly what the new federal rules require: advancement of interoperability and digital online access to clinical data and imaging, at scale, for care coordination and infection control. Now more than ever, healthcare needs to be able to digitize, visualize, virtualize, and curate all types of medical data at scale including diagnostic and pathology information without physical exchange. No more CDs, no more faxes, no more film or slides.
Not just data – advanced data
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness with corresponding impacts to the heart, liver, kidney and other organs. People with underlying health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease and cardiovascular disease appear to be at higher risk for hospitalization and death. Out of the 122,653 U.S. COVID-19 cases reported to CDC, only 5.8% of patients had data available pertaining to underlying health conditions or potential risk factors.
Advanced data such as imaging data are critical to diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and post-care monitoring. The typical structured data found in an electronic health record (EHR) or claims data are easier to access but have limited clinical value. With chronic or complex conditions, advanced data such as medical imaging, pathology and genomics are critical components of the longitudinal patient record that must be easily accessed and shared. However, imaging data has historically been among the most technically challenging to exchange.
While the industry has made some gains in imaging interoperability between large tertiary hospitals and their primary referral sites, patient sharing of digital images online is dismally small.
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.