Dec 30 2020

How COVID-19 Has Accelerated Digital Transformation in Healthcare

The pandemic is rapidly driving organizational change — and prompting health IT leaders to consider future needs and opportunities.

At the beginning of 2020, digital strategy initiatives around telehealth, data analytics and digital engagement were well underway for many healthcare organizations — albeit as a “nice to have” addition in some cases.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of these efforts industrywide, making them absolutely essential for healthcare organizations.

Hospitals and health systems in hard-hit areas were overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, putting substantial constraints on space, supplies and staff.

Soon after, providers and payers faced a spike in call center traffic, while their websites were overwhelmed with individuals seeking information on changes to services, resources on testing, health plan coverage and locating in-network providers for care.

Not only have these and other digital solutions facilitated a rapid response, they’re laying a foundation for long-term changes in care delivery.

Here are three solutions healthcare systems must consider in their digital transformation journeys:

Widespread Telehealth Adoption Brings Challenges and Opportunity

The notion of seeing a doctor via telephone or videoconferencing used to be a rarity. In March, federal officials temporarily waived potential HIPAA violations for “good faith use of telehealth” and expanded coverage for Medicare and Medicaid recipients.

Healthcare systems responded by rapidly scaling up telehealth efforts. This involved infrastructure adjustments, of course, but it also required training providers and patients to successfully navigate this new virtual terrain, as more than 1 billion telehealth visits are expected to occur by year’s end, according to Forrester.

Meanwhile, the rise of digital-first platforms has improved usability and access. “The easier we make that entry point, the more patients will use it,” Allison Norfleet, global healthcare lead for industry solutions at Cisco, told HealthTech in November.

Still, the legal future of telehealth faces many unknowns. Payers will need to evaluate long-term reimbursement models, and providers must determine how and where to expand telehealth efforts. A virtual visit might work for a young, low-acuity individual, but it might be unsuitable for an elderly patient needing lab work and vitals taken.

Automation Drives Streamlining of Health IT Services

Humans once were required to help patients get a handle on their symptoms — or to address administrative issues such as scheduling or billing.

An uptick in chatbots and virtual assistants has allowed organizations to redirect staff resources to other duties while still getting patients the information they need. An existing symptom-checker bot used by California-based Sutter Health was updated to interpret COVID-19 queries; many other systems have followed suit with similar efforts.

READ MORE: Discover 5 ways IT teams can save money during COVID-19.

To reduce the number of incoming phone calls, Phoenix-based HonorHealth leveraged ServiceNow capacities to launch an online symptom checker and a web function allowing users to chat live with a nurse.

Using the cloud-based Platform as a Service tool to automate internal services during the pandemic was “a perfect fit,” HonorHealth chief transformation officer James Whitfield recently told HealthTech.

Increasingly, automation tools are finding a place across health systems in areas such as IT ticketing, human resources and enterprise education, fulfilling rote but necessary functions that can save time and support social distancing with a hands-off approach.

Providers Get COVID-19 Insights via Data Analytics

As healthcare organizations continue treating a new disease that evolves by the minute, strong data analytics tools and platforms have big implications for better care.

Consider efforts at Providence, the first healthcare system in the U.S. treat a COVID-19 patient. In March, the West Coast organization announced it had been using predictive analytics to inform a game plan before any U.S. cases were diagnosed. Designed in-house, the tool helped clinicians map predictive models and inform other organizations. 

Analytics will become more critical as more remote patient monitoring programs are deployed to keep tabs on patients’ recovery from home. Providers must determine how massive streams of data from wearables and other devices will be received, processed and acted upon by clinicians before a program takes shape.

Beyond saving lives, these efforts can cut costs. Nearly two-thirds of executives forecast that predictive analytics will save their systems 15 percent or more over the next five years, a 2019 Society of Actuaries survey found — a bright spot as providers grapple with reduced budgets and mandates to drive efficiency.

This article is part of HealthTech’s MonITor blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using #WellnessIT.

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