Apr 30 2021

Technology Helps Hospitals Adapt to New Approaches for Arriving Patients

Hospitals and clinics find tools to lessen the pandemic risks in public areas.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine quickly became a central model for delivering healthcare. There’s no substitute, however, for the in-person delivery of some critical services. Like other healthcare organizations in early 2020, Mount Sinai Health System, which operates eight hospitals and more than 400 ambulatory practice locations in the New York City area, rushed to put policies and technologies in place so patients could safely traverse public areas to get labs, X-rays and urgent care of all sorts, according to CIO Kristin Myers.

Mount Sinai hospitals quickly adopted protocols to evaluate the infection risk of anyone entering a facility. The state of New York mandated that visitors were restricted and public areas were closed. Hospital staff used tablets for administrative tasks as well as for virtual consultations, part of an effort to keep patients and staff safely distanced. The health system also equipped hospital rooms with Google Nest webcams, which allow nurses to observe and communicate with patients without entering, Myers says.

Flexibility was crucial to dealing with the pandemic successfully. The situation created shortages of all types of supplies and equipment that required creative substitutions. For example, when workstations on wheels (mostly Dell machines) were hard to find, Mount Sinai hospitals purchased new laptops, including HP and Lenovo computers, and placed them on rolling carts to keep staff members working, Myers says.

“We did encounter some challenges,” she says. “We were able to quickly adapt and improve our e­fficiency to address these problems.”

Healthcare Technology Balances Safety and Convenience 

The need to balance safety with access to facilities during COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of technologies that had been introduced in healthcare before the pandemic, says Akin Demehin, director of policy for the American Hospital Association. Portals and apps became primary sources of information for patients to schedule, register for and proceed through appointments. Some hospitals deployed smartphone apps linked directly to patients’ electronic health records, making the critical information portable and accessible, Demehin says.

“Hospitals and health systems have been using ­technology to make receiving care in their facilities more convenient for patients and more manageable for staff, while maintaining safety during the ­pandemic,” he says.

Telemedicine has clearly demonstrated its value during the pandemic,
but other technologies, such as apps and tracking systems for check-in, registration and guiding patients through facilities, are likely to become permanent parts of healthcare as well, says Demehin.

“The pandemic has prompted hospitals to take a deeper look at their processes,” he says. “They want to create more efficiencies for the institutions by using technology, but, more important, to streamline processes for patients.”

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2017 Emergency Department Summary Tables, April 2019

Technology Strategies Ease Patient Anxiety

One of the biggest pandemic concerns for administrators at Banner Health was the risk to patients who might defer needed care in order to avoid public spaces, says Christopher Stallings, the healthcare system’s senior director of consumer digital services. Banner Health, headquartered in Phoenix, operates 30 acute-care hospitals and other facilities in six Western states.

To overcome patient anxiety, Banner Health mandated pandemic safety measures for all its hospitals and issued a certifying seal to each facility as soon as it had met them. The now-familiar precautions, including COVID screening on entry, visitor restrictions, masking and physical distancing, were augmented by technology that guided patients safely through their visits, Stallings says.

“We accelerated technology strategies we had been working on previously, and one of those was to make it so that people didn’t even have to come into a waiting room anymore,” he says.

LEARN MORE: The future of healthcare starts with a digital experience.

Banner Health deployed a system that uses a chatbot through which patients fill out health history and registration forms in advance. They can also register on a patient portal, either before their appointments or, if they need assistance, when they arrive at the facility. Through the system, patients receive a text an hour before their appointment that asks them to wait in their car at the hospital. From there, they are updated by text every few minutes and then directed into an exam room when it’s ready, Stallings says.

At Banner Health’s emergency departments, patients receive updates on tests, results and physicians’ orders via text, which keeps them informed about their care and reduces the workload on busy nurses, Stallings says.

Along with the increased use of ­telemedicine and remote monitoring, technologies that speed patients through waiting areas — or eliminate waiting rooms altogether — will be around long after the pandemic recedes, says Stallings.

“The pandemic has been a catalyst for change,” he says. “It’s made us focus on how we can provide tools for our consumers that make their healthcare experience easier and better.”

Texts Limit Facility Traffic, Reduce Risk

Like Banner Health, University Hospitals in Cleveland has reimagined how patients wait for care in its 20 hospitals in northeast Ohio. Besides quickly adopting virtual treatment options, setting up screening stations at the entrances to clinical sites and instituting standard distancing and sanitizing protocols, the health system deployed an interactive messaging system to manage throughput at all its facilities, says Stacy Porter, UH’s vice president of pediatrics, women’s health and consumer centric strategies.

Registration and check-in for in- person UH appointments are done in advance over the phone. The patient messaging system generates a reminder text 90 minutes before scheduled appointment times and provides a link that enables patients to alert staff when they have arrived at the hospital. Patients wait outside the hospital until a text sends them directly to an exam room. The system works on any text-enabled device and benefits patients without such devices as well, Porter says.

“By limiting traffic through waiting areas, the technology creates safer spaces for everyone,” she says.

The Future of Healthcare Is Now

COVID-19 has not only tested the healthcare system but has transformed it as well.

“Organizations — and payers and patients — who were uncertain of the value of virtual care have now become firm believers,” says CIO Kristin Myers of Mount Sinai Health System.

At University Hospitals in Cleveland, 16 percent of scheduled visits with providers are now virtual, up from 2 percent before the pandemic, and are expected to remain at the higher level, says Stacy Porter, UH’s vice president of pediatrics, women’s health and consumer-centric strategies. Other, less conspicuous innovations such as virtual waiting rooms are likely to become permanent, she says.

Kristin Myers

Kristin Myers, CIO of Mount Sinai Health System

The hospital system has seen hundreds of thousands of uses of its interactive messaging system for patients, which has made communication and coordination easier for both patients and staff. This kind of system is here to stay, Porter says.

The disruption of the pandemic has made clear the value of some technologies and has also made healthcare organizations more open to new ways of doing things, says Christopher Stallings of Banner Health.

“Great tools and approaches are coming out of the pandemic that will help healthcare for years into the future, and we have to manage the change effectively,” he says.

Michael Austin/Theispot