With the introduction of newer applications, data strategies, assistive listening devices and more, technology is helping to improve the quality of life of seniors, especially those in care facilities. The pandemic accelerated the implementation of advanced technologies and now more seniors own a smartphone or take part in video conferencing and telehealth, for example. This has allowed them to reach out to family and friends remotely and access more information related to their health. Here are a few examples of how technology is improving the quality of life of seniors.
With automated messaging services such as SMS for Healthcare, the families of seniors in residents and assisted living facilities can receive regular updates about their well-being and daily activities. This is now a common service and provides families with peace of mind. The pandemic helped to raise awareness of the importance of these types of messaging services as people weren’t able to visit their loved ones.
Telemedicine is rapidly defining the modern medical landscape, with thousands of patients moving away from in-person meetings to video consultation. Statistics reported by the CDC identify that up to 30% of all medical visits are now conducted remotely, via digital means, underlining the importance of digital healthcare in the modern medical ecosystem.
One area in which this has created questions is the provision of Medicare. How does the preference for digital medical care change billing? And how has technology impacted medical insurance and its applicability to medicare-eligible groups? Telehealth is, at the very least, improving access to healthcare to those groups eligible for Medicare.
During the pandemic, nearly every healthcare provider in the country had to execute a rapid, unplanned switch to telemedicine for the majority of their consults and activities. According to one study from the RAND Corporation, there was a 20-fold increase in the rate of telemedicine utilization after March 2020. For the most part, this transition was executed well and successfully, but only due to heroic levels of creativity and dedication by clinicians in every field.
With few established practices to rely on, it fell to each hospital, each department, each clinician to more or less invent ways to conduct virtual consultations in dermatology, cardiology, oncology, and more. There was much trial and error, but a commitment to rapid learning meant that the community as a whole was able to achieve a reasonable level of healthcare delivery quality to patients via the web.
Now, however, it is clear that telemedicine will be a permanent and sizeable segment of healthcare delivery; some estimate that more than 20% of healthcare from 2021 onward will be virtual. As a result, every aspect of the healthcare ecosystem must move out of an “emergency” mindset when it comes to telehealth and focus on establishing scalable, sustainable processes that ensure that a steady shift to telehealth drives equity, access, and quality. Healthcare providers themselves are actively engaged in this effort, and medical schools also now need to evolve to reflect this new normal.
Medical schools have incorporated some telehealth training into their programs in recent years, but it has tended to be ancillary. Now, it will be critical for telemedicine training to be incorporated more structurally into core curricula. What is being called “webside manner,” for instance, is significantly different to “bedside manner” and needs to be taught explicitly ?— in both a classroom setting and during clerkship rotations, as well as residencies.
Clinicians need to be taught how to establish rapport with patients whom they don’t see face to face, how to assess possible domestic abuse threats when the patient may not be able to speak freely, and how to gather emergency contact information in case there is a critical event during the consult for which the clinician needs to call emergency services. They also must learn how to take advantage of the unique opportunity that telehealth presents to closely observe and document social determinants of health by, for instance, asking patients to show the contents of their refrigerator. And they must be taught how to navigate the “digital divide” and ensure that patients without access to broadband or smartphones aren’t consigned to a lower quality of telehealth care.
COVID-19 sent telemedicine on the fast track for widespread adoption, helping doctors manage and care for their patients — especially those at high risk — during the nationwide shelter-in-place ordinance. But for patients in low-income families, there wasn’t such a simple solution.
While the ACA makes health insurance accessible for a significant number of Americans, there are still millions of vulnerable people who rely on receiving care from free clinics like CommunityHealth. So when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in March 2020 and strict shelter-in-place orders went into effect across the Chicagoland area, many low-income patients were left unable to seek basic treatment for their preexisting, ongoing, or newly-developed medical needs.
At CommunityHealth, the nation’s largest volunteer-based free clinic, we strive to deliver high-quality care to those who need it most, providing 15,000 medical and dental visits to thousands of Chicagoans who are underserved and uninsured each year. Up to 65 percent of our patients live at or below the federal poverty line, which is $24,300 for a family of four. Many also suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, which require ongoing medical treatment.
While most healthcare providers turned to telehealth solutions to continue providing care to their high-risk patients during the pandemic, we knew that many of our low-income families wouldn’t be able to download additional software in advance of a virtual visit — a common prerequisite for many telemedicine tools — or even have reliable access to high-speed internet.
What we needed was a solution that worked with any smartphone as seamlessly as possible, and an easy-to-use telehealth solution that could be rapidly deployed across our network of providers. We also needed a simple platform for physicians and, most importantly, a user-friendly and accessible solution for our patients.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, free and charitable clinics across the country quickly pivoted to telehealth to keep staff, volunteers and patients safe. A year later, the ability to provide low-income, uninsured patients with a new, more convenient way to connect with their care team has been embraced by healthcare providers and patients alike.
There’s a good reason for this almost universal adoption. Telehealth facilitates virtual video appointments with providers using a patient’s computer or smartphone. It’s a game changer for patients with transportation or mobility issues as well as those working multiple jobs or in need of childcare, or in many cases, both.
The National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics reports 67 percent of free and charitable clinics across the country successfully implemented telehealth services in response to the pandemic. Many other safety net clinics so vital for the healthcare of underserved communities in the U.S., would do they same but they are still struggling to find the funding, training and the technical assistance necessary to make telehealth viable at their facilities.
The reality is, a third of free and charitable clinics in this country have operating budgets of less than $100,000. Many rely on volunteer providers and staff, and most simply don’t have the technical or financial resources to pivot to telemedicine.
Yet for the low-income communities they serve, telehealth increases access to care. It provides patients with the flexibility to attend appointments without having to miss work and lose much-needed income, coordinate childcare, or find reliable transportation—barriers that often stand in the way of low-income patients and their healthcare.
The world is becoming more digitized, with technology now being used to enhance all sectors including healthcare. There are lots of developments that are evidence of this including the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, telehealth services, wearable technology, and more to offer accessible and improved healthcare services.
Telehealth services, in particular, stands out because it allows patients to consult with physicians, set appointments, and receive healthcare services wherever they may be. In this article, we are going to explore how telehealth is transforming healthcare, especially in the current pandemic.
Improved Access To Healthcare
An obvious way that telehealth has transformed healthcare is that it has helped improves access to healthcare among patients who otherwise would not have access to healthcare. These include people suffering from chronic illnesses such as heart disease and hypertension who are afraid of visiting hospitals for fear of contracting COVID-19.
Telehealth, telemedicine, and virtual care are often used interchangeably to describe remote healthcare visits. But virtual care means something much more than just telehealth or telemedicine. In fact, virtual care is in a category all its own. It is the logical, necessary next step in providing access to healthcare for all.
Telemedicine is Evolving
Remote monitoring and telehealth are nothing new. For decades, doctors have been able to monitor patients remotely or provide medical consults over the phone. Anxious parents have called in to 24-7 nurse hotlines to get advice about childhood illnesses and accidents. More recently, with the advancement of smart phones and web cams, new business models were created to connect patients with doctors over the internet.
However, most people still preferred to visit their doctors in person, and most doctors and healthcare centers weren’t considering a major shift to video any time soon.
Then COVID hit. It accelerated peoples’ desire for virtual healthcare visits and helped them feel more comfortable using video conferencing technology. Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet and Skype became the go-to solutions for clinics large and small that didn’t yet have telehealth in place.
Video conferencing did good things for healthcare:
• Prevented even higher rates of delayed care
• Enabled providers to triage patients from a distance
• Gave quarantined providers a way to treat patients remotely
• Kept more clinics open and providers working
• Improved access to care for more patients
And while these video conference technologies solved an immediate problem, they quickly showed their limitations. These bandage solutions solved one issue while encountering (and even creating) many more problems.
Rapid expansion of video conferencing for healthcare exposed its weaknesses from HIPAA compliance issues, non-secure connections, the inability to bring a third party onto the call, wasted time as patients and/or doctors wait for the other party to join, limited number of users, concurrent calls, and call minutes and even the limited length of calls. The pandemic accelerated everything, even the “bad habits” of telemedicine.
Even before the pandemic, rural hospitals were closing at record rates. According to a report by the Chartis Center for Rural Health, 19 hospitals in rural America closed in 2019. By 2020, one in four hospitals were at risk of closing — and COVID-19 has only worsened their financial challenges. This is particularly problematic for aging populations and the rural communities that already face barriers to proper healthcare.
As a result, many healthcare organizations are left wondering how they can improve the patient’s journey in healthcare and overcome major obstacles moving forward. They’re handling the drastic increase in telehealth visits, rescheduling clinical trials, promoting digital relationships with doctors, re-evaluating health portfolios, and more.
Given the various challenges healthcare providers and professionals face, what is the best path forward? It starts with establishing a patient-first approach. The industry has to take what it’s learned from an unprecedented 2020 and consider how to reach more patients in 2021 and beyond.
Digital Transformation and the Patient-First Approach
This starts with the role of digital in the changing industry. Advancements and shifts in the digital healthcare experience are likely here to stay. Many of the new tech-based processes brought about by the pandemic (e.g., telehealth, virtual check-ins, new technologies for remote intake) will become standard elements of the digital patient journey.
While industry professionals initially scrambled to adopt these tools, the benefits of digital transformations in healthcare were immediately apparent: convenience, reduced exposure to illness, and increased accessibility. Healthcare organizations became more proactive in reaching their patients, which led to better treatment and quality of care.
But digital transformation is not happening in a vacuum. The push to implement more technology in healthcare processes has also created a push for a more local, results-based approach to healthcare. Decentralized healthcare systems work to improve efficiency and quality of care; they can also enhance communication between a referring provider and the partner organization, ensuring a smooth continuation of care when it’s needed.
The ultimate goal of this push is to open up a “digital front door in healthcare.” This strategic and patient-first approach creates engagement during every interaction with the healthcare system. Why? A well-rounded healthcare strategy doesn’t rely on one component of the patient experience to determine the quality of care — and neither should a digital strategy. Instead, it must take a comprehensive approach that keeps patients engaged and informed.
The marriage between a patient-first approach and a digital front door strategy has the potential to be incredibly powerful. A digital-first, patient-centric approach can propel your organization into the future of healthcare. Here are three suggestions to get you started:
The start of the global pandemic put incredible stress on the numerous healthcare heroes as well as their facilities, and the industry at large. Medical professionals, already faced with inordinate pressure under normal circumstances, have been working nonstop to perform heroic work day in and day out since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing this crisis has clearly illustrated is the need for medical professionals to have access to the latest tools that provide the greatest degree of flexibility, efficiency, and mobility. These tools certainly include the IT backbone underpinning healthcare facilities big and small, from the networks and software to the new wave of smaller, mobile devices.
Two areas of IT have seen tremendous uptake in the healthcare industry as it has adapted to the crisis, the first being through the accelerated shift to telemedicine. Telemedicine allows patients to get almost instant medical attention without the concerns of traveling to a doctor’s office or hospital during the coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, the telemedicine market is expected to swell to $155.1 billion by 2027 in large part due to the pandemic.
Overall, telemedicine is an efficient way for providers to see the highest possible number of patients at a lower cost with shorter waiting times. Doctors can schedule more appointments than they would during normal rounds while still maintaining a quality practice that offers individualized attention to each case.
Additionally, telehealth visits can be recorded, allowing clinicians to document progress and share information with relevant specialists on the go. Telemedicine fosters collaboration by combining high-speed internet and high-definition video for communication between colleagues who are sometimes seeing hundreds of people a day because of the coronavirus.
When I wrote about megatrends last year, the predictions were, naturally, forward-looking. Telehealth, for example, was important because of increased healthcare consumerism and the convergence of technologies to make its use quick and easy for payers, providers and patients.
Now when I look at telehealth as one of several 2021 megatrends, it’s tinged by the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than telehealth being a nice-to-have in 2020 with adoption over time, the service has become a necessity needed in real-time caused by the pandemic’s social distancing mandate and the highly communicable nature of the virus.
Each 2021 megatrend has the pandemic front and center. The pandemic exposed many issues facing the healthcare industry. Challenges and problems that weren’t a surprise, but simply rose to the top astonishingly quickly as the healthcare industry responded to the pandemic. The pandemic is and will continue to propel many analytics challenges and needs throughout healthcare.
Coronavirus sets the stage
Now that we’ve established the pandemic as the dominant megatrend across healthcare businesses worldwide, we’re going to take a deeper look at the pandemic’s impact on the industry: payers and providers, members and patients.
As COVID-19 rapidly descended, many different types of organizations changed to partial or fully remote workforce operations and took necessary measures to preserve the safety and health of employees. After securing operations, organizations quickly started to understand how they could help clients navigate the pandemic.
Much of the work in healthcare IT (HIT) was shaped by COVID-19. We wanted to help payers and providers understand the impact of the pandemic on business, financial and clinical outcomes to help healthcare remain viable for the many people working for the organizations or receiving care.
The following are 2021’s healthcare megatrends.
Telehealth goes mainstream as the new normal
The first major pandemic-propelled trend that everyone is talking about is increased telehealth usage. Many of us, my family included, began seeing our doctors online for the first time because of the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported a staggering change for Medicare and Medicaid populations. Telehealth use was 0.1% of overall health services in January 2020, but by April it had increased to 45.9% of utilization. (Telehealth use by Medicare and Medicaid patients later decreased to 20%.)
Meanwhile, Definitive Healthcare reported in June 2020 that 33 percent of inpatient hospitals offered telehealth in 2019. By June 2020 that was up to 75%; another staggering increase. We see telehealth here to stay after COVID-19 is controlled. Utilization likely will come down from current pandemic levels, but industry analysts almost universally predict telehealth adoption will remain high as mainstream patients adopt and become comfortable with the technology. (Last year, an increase in the use of telehealth was one of our megatrends, though for different reasons.)