The COVID-19 pandemic has forced major changes around the globe and in every industry. In healthcare, organizations have had to accelerate many of their digital transformation initiatives to speed up deployment of operations such as telehealth.
These efforts impact every aspect of healthcare, especially the patient. Digital initiatives have made it possible for healthcare providers and patients to connect while maintaining social distancing, just as similar transformation efforts have enabled work from home for many industries and remote schooling for students.
But there has been a downside to this trend. Many people don’t have the tools or the infrastructure in place to support remote connections. In some cases, users — especially those in rural locations — don’t have access to high-speed internet connections, which are required to support applications such as videoconferencing for telehealth. In other cases, people lack the computers or tablet devices they need to run these applications. Ultimately, we’re seeing a level of inequity that wasn’t visible before.
Making the Connection Between Healthcare and Technology
In addition to challenges around access to technology, we’ve seen a high rate of mental health issues during the pandemic, especially among children. As children become less socially engaged with their peers through activities such as school, sports and hobbies, mental health effects start to emerge. We’re seeing similar issues with older populations as well, and the situation is exacerbated by the challenges many people have in getting access to the services they need though technology.
As the implications of these issues become clearer, the technology industry and those of us in healthcare IT should be responsible for solving them. Children who are experiencing mental health issues due to the pandemic should be able to get help, but they can’t if they don’t have access to the technologies that can deliver it. Technology companies should work with healthcare organizations to provide subsidized access to tools that enable access to care.
Some programs are already in place, but in most cases, they’re small and not widely known, and the equipment they provide can be substandard. We must do better.
Reaching Those in Need With Technology Tools
Efforts to address this problem should be community-based and have many facets. Healthcare organizations and technology companies should establish programs for different age groups, providing not only access to the tools they need but also training on how to use them. A help line should be established for older users who need assistance in solving problems and getting devices set up. These programs should create partnerships with digital champions who can coach older adults if they need help.
At Seattle Children’s, which serves 46 sites in four states, we’re currently looking at piloting a loaner program that lends tablets to patients in the hospital. Every bed now has an Apple iPad device at the bedside.
But the bigger challenge is to deliver this access to people in their homes. We are looking to expand our effort to the community in different ways. One program would install telehealth kiosks at regional clinics that Seattle Children’s operates. This would give patients access to cameras and telehealth technology that can put them in touch with healthcare professionals for the services they need, including mental health.
READ MORE: Learn strategies for building patient trust during the pandemic.
The next level would be to loan devices, such as tablets or laptops, to patients in the community to help them access healthcare services. But this step also needs to be accompanied by an effort to provide internet connectivity, and must address obstacles such as language barriers between some patients and clinicians.
At a tactical level, healthcare organizations are starting to look at these issues. But their efforts won’t be successful unless we see collaboration at the national level between the technology and healthcare sectors to build such programs.
How are we all going to work together to solve this?