As healthcare workers and executives on the frontlines fight to control the spread, COVID-19 has infected more than two million people, causing at least 159,000 deaths around the world. While this pandemic has brought changes on every continent and brought trauma, fear and grief to millions, the world continues to hold on to hope. Hospitals in the US are experiencing that hope in a variety of ways – many report receiving unexpected food or flower delivers from patients and families, billboards and signs in many cities offering messages of thanks, and celebratory rituals when a COVID-19 patient leaves the hospital healthy.
In addition, healthcare leaders are taking their learnings and experiences during the pandemic to drive both operations and the quality of care. Technology and innovation are emerging as key areas in which the lessons learned from facing the COVID-19 crisis could help the industry into the future.
The Strength of Innovation
While many consider technology to be the driving force behind improvements in the healthcare industry, the changes have not occurred quickly. Some noted ways in which technology has moved healthcare forward include:
- Creating new avenues for research
- Allowing access to real-time patient data with the ability to share it across the continuum
- Improving data collection and data accuracy
- Communicating lab results, vital signs and other patient data to a centralized database
Innovating During a Health Crisis
During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare leaders are turning to technology to help maximize speed, improve efficiency and enhance safer access to care, utilizing social distancing. Health-focused tech companies are reporting surges in their business and noting that many hospitals are now asking for innovation and technology to implement as soon as possible. Some of the health technology innovations bringing hope during the COVID-19 health crisis include:
Mainstreaming of Telehealth
Over the last several years, interest in Telehealth services has grown, though the progress has been slower than many expected. Concerns regarding the reimbursement model for Telehealth visits has caused many providers to opt out of the service, even after gaining approval. However, with the need to provide an option for patients to visit their provider or the hospital without endangering their health or safety, the push to advance telehealth initiatives is considerable.
Today, Telehealth services are covered for office visits where services are provided by physicians or other providers, which now includes clinical psychologists, licensed clinical social workers or nurse practitioners. The Office of Health and Human Services (HHS) has also agreed to waive Medicare’s cost-sharing requirements for COVID-19 treatment that is delivered through Telehealth technology, either from a doctor’s office or a hospital ER. These changes could be the turning point in Telehealth utilization across the country, making Telehealth visits mainstream and providing an easy alternative for receiving care for low-acuity needs. This technology could also be instrumental in providing much needed services and improved access to care in rural communities.
Increasing Focus on Cybersecurity
While many health organizations have stayed ahead of cybersecurity attacks to date, the rapid influx of new technologies; the increase in virtual health; and the need for enhanced support for virtual workers have increased system vulnerabilities. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO), HHS and several state and local health agencies have been targets of online attacks. Looking toward the future, healthcare executives better understand how their systems may be at risk if they want to continue to utilize the technology and online tools established during the pandemic.
Driving IT Strategic Planning
For healthcare leaders, strategic planning for enterprise-wide IT projects is a typical task. However, as many organizations accelerate their digital services, there is a growing need for additional long-term planning. As healthcare organizations increase their focus on strategic planning for after the pandemic, they will have the opportunity to consider what technology has worked, what their challenges were, what risks they face and what opportunities they have to move their organization forward utilizing technology.
Growth of Virtual Workspaces
Many healthcare organizations are reporting up to a 50 percent increase in the number of remote workers they must support. This includes providing virtual desktop interfaces (VDI), connectivity devices and endpoint security to keep all the systems safe. Operational planning is also needed to ensure enterprise IT systems support their virtual workers by providing a seamless flow of data. This large shift in technology resources and planning has created both opportunities and risks. While we still do not know the extent to which system vulnerabilities will be identified, the ability to support virtual teams on a large-scale offers opportunities for recruitment and retention that have so far been untapped.
Remote Patient Monitoring
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) has seen steady growth over the last two years and the shelter-in-place orders across the country have expedited that growth. Patients who are suspected of having COVID-19 are able to be monitored closely without bringing them to crowded hospitals, while other patients who require frequent contact with their doctors can maintain their conditions without leaving their homes.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare coverage for RPM services was restricted to patients with one or more chronic conditions. In response to the current health crisis, CMS has now issued new regulatory policies around RPM, both for the duration of the pandemic and going forward. Now and into the future, RPM is available for both acute and/or chronic conditions, opening up opportunities for further care innovations to come. In addition, CMS has outlined that RPM can be utilized for both new patients and established patients.
Improving Access and Speed
In many communities, fear of the COVID-19 virus has spread as fast as the virus itself. Patients are clamoring for advice from their providers and health executives are working at warp speed to keep up with demand. Some health systems have implemented call centers to help support patients and answer questions. Others are now utilizing self-triaging tools, such as chatbots, to help patients evaluate their symptoms before going to see a doctor. In some instances, the chatbots are equipped with answers to frequently ask questions, assessments related to COVID-19 symptoms, and opportunities to send messages directly to a physician. These innovations are providing great hope for the future regarding the ability to evaluate patients, guide them through the care process, and to limit wait times and unnecessary emergency room visits.
Utilizing Artificial Intelligence
To support the efforts of the federal government, local governments and frontline workers to combat the COVID-19 crisis, healthcare leaders are turning to technology in an effort to increase access to advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). To date, AI is being used to power sensors to support triage that allow providers to quickly identify individuals with a fever, even in a crowd; to provide decision support for CT scans; and to automate hospital operations. These few examples of AI innovation suggest a wealth of opportunities for future treatment and the ability to expand access and accuracy of care.
The Next Wave of Innovation
The opportunities afforded by Telehealth and other technologies going forward are not limited to patient care, communication or education. Playing the role of an industry disrupter, technology has created the ability to establish new, peripheral services to support the healthcare industry. Products such as telemonitoring devices, home messaging services and patient monitoring tools will all have the opportunity to evolve and shift to support patient care in the era of growing Telehealth and AI services. These innovations present a whole new avenue for cutting costs and enhancing access to care, during the current pandemic and beyond.