Challenges and opportunities often show up at our doorstep bound together. Alongside the tragedy and heartache of the COVID-19 pandemic came a glimmer of hope: the speed at which health systems across the country were able to adapt and accommodate the growing number of patients.
Despite facing this challenge with limited supplies, an unclear path forward, and scant data to guide their decisions, health system leaders found creative ways to work within their means to accelerate their digital transformations. Health IT teams stood up ICU beds, adapted programs, and pushed hundreds of thousands of employees to remote work within days. What had formerly taken months or years was now taking mere hours.
With this rush to find solutions, executives interviewed by This Week In Health IT realized the benefits that proponents of digital health have promised all along. Here are just a few:
IT teams were met with challenges previously thought of as insurmountable. But as the crisis unfolded, innovations that typically would take months or years to implement were up and running in a matter of days, or even hours.
In 2021, however, the pandemic’s pressure has begun to wane as therapeutics are developed and vaccinations administered. But patient, clinician, and health executive expectations have not lessened. The threat of hackers, the intensity of competition among systems and new entrants added, and the chances that another pandemic may arrive as quickly and with as much ferocity as this one have also remained.
Some healthcare leaders believe that the speedy pivots we saw in 2020 were an aberration, motivated by lives on the line. However, others argue there is a happy medium between former expectations and the burnout that awaits with the speed of current projects.
With this new insight in mind, health system leaders aim to accelerate their digital transformation—in the face of pandemic-level pressure or not.
In interviews with This Week In Health IT, health IT leaders discussed how they intend to continue accomplishing these feats of digital health acceleration after the worst of COVID-19 has passed.
While there are benefits to a piecemeal approach to digital transformation, implementing digital so it is woven into the healthcare ecosystem can reap even greater reward. Craig Richardville, SVP & Chief Information & Digital Officer, strives for this within his health system, SCL Health, which serves patients in Kansas, Colorado, and Montana.
In 2021, Richardville is looking to scale digital health across four key verticals at SCL Health:
Richardville draws his inspiration to innovate in healthcare from industries like retail.
“When you look at companies like Amazon that were born in the cloud, you don’t really see human interactions. Rather, machines are taking care of a lot of those services for you,” he says. “As we mature, that’s going to be one of the new norms that people are going to expect [in healthcare.]”
Many of the rules applying to health systems pre-pandemic no longer carry the same weight in the post-COVID world. So why should the metrics we use to measure success remain the same?
We must maintain flexibility in this respect, says Tom Barnett, Chief Information and Digital Officer at Baptist Memorial Health, a health system with locations in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
Many clinicians are reporting increasing levels of burnout: a condition that has been linked to decreased patient satisfaction, higher employee turnover, and a several-billion-dollar-per-year price tag nationally. Barnett explains how to use digital resources to measure behaviors that contribute to burnout symptoms.
In 2021, Barnett is exploring ways to gain an enterprise-level view of the time clinicians spend using electronic medical records (EMRs)—particularly when they’re used outside of normal working hours—with the goal of optimizing physician time at scale.
“How can we set those benchmarks and work with our in-house training team, as well as our process improvement team, to focus on how we reduce the amount of burden that’s on those physicians and make sure we’re flowing that work through with as many optimization points as we can?” Barnett asks.
His intention is to prevent optimization from being limited to physician time. Instead, it should be woven into the healthcare ecosystem and culture.
“I think we’re all going to be embracing digital tools on a level that probably hasn’t been seen in health IT before,” Barnett says. “Healthcare is always a step or two behind other industries, but when we look at how well the remote transformation has worked for us, I think there’s going to be an opening where we think about how we do that same type of focused teamwork, rallying teams around new strategies and implementing them in a lot shorter time frames.”
The pandemic turned the elusive implementation of telemedicine into the default method of care as social distancing became a necessity. Though telehealth success stories continue to emerge, it still has room to grow to its full potential, explained Dr. Joseph Kvedar, a Harvard professor, senior advisor for virtual care at Mass General Brigham, and chair of the American Telemedicine Association.
“Telehealth has become a household word,” Kvedar said. “But we’re now learning what it means to be in implementation mode versus proof-of-concept or experimentation mode.”
In the context of the pandemic, telehealth has been often discussed as a success story. But part of Kvedar’s job is to exhaustively search for new efficiencies. Toward that end, he has found that widespread telehealth use during the pandemic revealed two key challenges that still remain—and he is working to tackle both in 2021.
With ICU beds full, supplies low, and several waves of patients, it may seem like innovation should not be a priority. But a health system leader’s job is to envision solutions, not to dwell on problems, according to Dr. Karen Murphy, Chief Innovation Officer at Geisinger. These points were driven home with unmatched intensity during the COVID-19 pandemic—and they’re lessons that Dr. Karen Murphy, Chief Innovation Officer at Geisinger, will never forget.
“We’ve tried from the very beginning to study the lessons [of this pandemic] and figure out how we can carry ourselves forward and not go back to where we were before,” Murphy says. “If you think about last March, if you said to me that we could transform our delivery system in a matter of hours or days, I would’ve said that’s impossible. But we did it, and we demonstrated that we’re a lot more flexible than we thought we were, and frankly, a lot more resilient.”
Bringing that attitude into the post-COVID world could help improve the healthcare system’s agility, responsiveness, and understanding of its own capacity to handle catastrophes and other high-stakes scenarios.
What’s more, new tools–like predictive analytics–can help health system leaders add extra layers of intelligence and improved forecasting abilities to their tool belts.
With firm knowledge of their extant capabilities and an informed view of what lies ahead, health system leaders can push into 2021 with confidence, Murphy says.
Telehealth usage has exploded in 2020, said BJ Moore, CIO and executive vice president at Providence, but this monumental push forward in the digital transformation may be leaving some people behind. Data suggests that much of the uptick in telehealth engagement comes on behalf of highly educated, high-earning patients.
On top of this, the pandemic has highlighted deep disparities in healthcare outcomes. Not only are diverse populations much more likely to become infected and die from COVID-19, they are also less likely to be vaccinated. These trends prolong the pandemic—and health system leaders have a responsibility to put a stop to them.
In 2021, these challenges are front of mind for Moore, whose national, not-for-profit health system is founded on the belief that healthcare is a human right. He explained how it is one thing to have your health system quickly pivot and deploy telehealth at scale, but it’s another to ensure these technology implementations remain available to all patients and are guided by a focus on service.
“What are we doing to bring underserved communities to the forefront?” Moore asked. “How do we make sure technologies like telehealth include poor and vulnerable communities and don’t create a digital divide?”
In 2021, executives must remain conscious of their system’s ability to leverage technology to reach into these underserved communities, whose health—particularly during a global pandemic—is inextricably linked with the other communities that their health systems service.
For executives concerned about the investments associated with such efforts, Moore explained profitability plays an important role in the healthcare decisions he makes, even in a not-for-profit environment.
“I’m happy to say that last year we delivered almost $2 billion in free health services to our poor and vulnerable communities. The only way we can do that is by being healthy financially,” he explained. “So we look at business opportunities that have higher margins…and the profitability we get from that helps us give back to our communities.”