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Top 6 healthcare IT lessons from the pandemic

Caught up in the struggle to help patients survive the pandemic, healthcare IT learned critical ways to thrive beyond the crisis.

When COVID-19 first hit, the healthcare industry scrambled to save lives without spreading the disease or breaking the institutions rendering the aid. It was no small ask of the rank and file in healthcare IT: Almost nothing in their technology portfolios was designed or suited to the monumental task. Technologies that would prove useful had previously met with little funding and limited adoption rates. The worldwide emergency called for rethinks on the fly and a crush of projects, each a matter of do or die.

In a real-time, real-life miracle of the age, healthcare was largely successful: Even as millions of people lost their lives, millions of others were saved.

While the pandemic is finally receding in some countries, it is flaring again in others. Lessons learned from the pandemic can help healthcare providers still on the front lines and strengthen strategies to conquer new disease threats in the future. In between lies a forever changed industry that has redefined healthcare delivery and business models.

The following are top lessons learned from the pandemic.

1) What remote healthcare really means

Traditional modeling of remote healthcare assumed the patient would be far away but "the care team would be in the traditional clinical setting, along with all their admin teams, and healthcare management, those that are not patient facing, sitting in an office alongside them," explains Rich Bird, worldwide healthcare and life sciences marketing manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

The pandemic changed that perception entirely. While patients may be in a rural area, another country, or a remote jungle during the pandemic, it was much more likely that the patient was just down the street or in quarantine in the same hospital building.

"Now, telehealth assumes everyone is remote," says Bird. This can be a problem for healthcare IT teams, however, since most healthcare team members also moved to remote locations. Hospitals quickly centered on emergency care while many other important and revenue-producing departments sat deserted for months.

"Compounding the issues is the fact that a lot of healthcare staff are actually employed by other talent providers," says Bird.

These factors made telehealth harder to pull off, especially at such a scale and the need to secure it all.

Healthcare providers had to change their healthcare delivery processes and rethink telehealth to incorporate more points of input from data and provider roles. Providers also had to learn how to monetize patient services through telemedicine and handle other matters such as insurance approvals, changes in care regulations, and billing.

While telehealth will continue to improve over time, the general strategies and deployments are etched by the pandemic in future telemedicine plans. This is important because telemedicine is here to stay, according to the Health Transformation Alliance, a nonprofit alliance of large, self-insured companies.

2) EHRs can do a lot more

Initially envisioned as a way to manage and share clinical documentation at the patient chart level, EHRs proved they were capable of much more. This game-changing discovery came from EHR vendors scrambling early on to quickly align clinical documentation capabilities with the needs of the pandemic situation.

"Many vendors pushed out updates to reflect COVID-19 guidelines and, alongside that, deployed new questionnaires, lab compendiums, and clinical decision support capabilities for COVID-19. In doing so, the EHR vendors revealed different strategies, capabilities, and levels of respective differentiation in terms of how customers became COVID-ready," says Oded Shihor, strategist and worldwide healthcare industry lead for GreenLake portfolio management at HPE.

Please read: EHRs prove invaluable in Israel vaccine campaign

"Many of these strategies align strongly with digital front-door plays and an expectation of there being a higher level of anticipated demand on technical support and IT services as providers conduct ongoing vulnerability assessments and optimizations of their EHRs," Shihor adds.

Israel's universal and sophisticated EHR system was a key to the country signing a deal with Pfizer for early access to its COVID vaccine. It likely also made tracking efficacy and side effects of the vaccine easier.

3) Prescription deliveries work better in a blended model

While many healthcare providers prescribed medicines electronically before COVID-19 came along, doing so became of paramount importance during the pandemic. E-scripts provide pharmacy options and speed local deliveries to patients, too.

"Rather than getting a physical prescription slip, which you would hand into a pharmacy, you can nominate your preferred pharmacist location and your prescriptions for medicine are digitally sent to the pharmacist, who has them ready and waiting for you within a day," says Mark Wayt, HPE's worldwide client platforms architect for the digital workplace.

Local pharmacies also learned the value of mailing medicines and providing other delivery services to local patients. This not only became essential services for patients suffering from any ailments but also a way to increase revenues even during lockdowns.

4) Remote and self-serve diagnostics are essential

Not only are diagnostics essential to making correct diagnoses and providing proper treatments, but they are also key revenue sources for many healthcare providers. Unfortunately, diagnostics rates plunged during the pandemic. There were "at least 4.4 million fewer diagnostic examination scans performed in England between April and September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019," according to a BBC News report. Other countries reported similar trends.

IoT and apps on mobile devices helped fill some of the diagnostics gaps, as did self-reporting of blood pressures, temperatures, and oxygen levels and other measures through devices bought at pharmacies and used at home. Many medical device companies have attempted to sell devices that could expand the range of examinations performed at home by patients, such as stethoscopes and urinalysis, but for many reasons, these did not increase adoption during the pandemic, at least not in the U.S. Even simple tests like listening to a patient's chest cannot otherwise be performed in a telemedicine visit.

Some diagnostics such as those performed by radiology required the patient to be present in person, but the image and interpretation files could be easily transferrable to remote providers.

COVID-19 drove an already growing demand for convergence between medical imaging and technologies but less for collaborative learning and more for enabling business continuity and supporting workforce remote work and shortages.

Please read: Telehealth: How virtual can medicine get?

The pandemic "helped push AI projects forward, along with augmented reality such as Microsoft HoloLens and collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams," says HPE's Shihor.

"Radiology departments, while they have seen significant decline in certain diagnostic procedures due to the focus on COVID-19- related hospital visits, with the need to work remotely and in self-isolation, have also mandated the need for secure and modular industrial-scale enterprise imaging platforms, able to also integrate AI capabilities," Shihor adds.

Also evident is the need for a new approach to medical imaging capabilities, primarily in the form of enterprise imaging platforms.

5) Enabling critical patient communications is essential

Experian Health data found that non-medical factors in healthcare, also known as social determinants of health, account for up to 80 percent of health outcomes. While Experian Health data and its CORE heat map help government, public health officials, and healthcare systems with issues such as inequities in vaccine distribution, non-medical factors affect health outcomes in hospitalized patients, too.

Key among those issues is end-of-life communications from isolation wards. In many hospitals, tablets and even hospital staff phones were quickly drafted for duty in helping dying patients and their families connect despite being subject to strict isolation protocols.

"In the pre-pandemic world, this was something that really wasn't a priority consideration, but now, with family visits all but eliminated, these technologies provided at least some form of comfort to those patients and their families who were going through something extraordinarily difficult," says Rich Temple, vice president and CIO at Deborah Heart and Lung Center.

Perhaps lessons learned from these painful episodes and from telemedicine in general will facilitate additional innovations in patient and family communications.

6) Healthcare systems are nimbler in a crisis than expected

Healthcare has long been considered a straggler in comparison to other industries in responding to change and crises due to heavy regulation, a complex nature, and fewer investments and adoptions of leading technologies.

"So, it was quite striking how, when our world started closing down and our beds were being filled with desperately sick, highly contagious patients, we were indeed able to pivot on a dime and scale up services such as telemedicine that had not been widely deployed prior to the pandemic but became essential with its advent," says Temple.

Please read: The rapid transformation of healthcare

"We were also able to—without lengthy committee reviews and other bureaucracy—reconfigure our rooms to better support an onslaught of critical care patients. While terribly painful, the pandemic showed us that we really can move aggressively when we need to and continue to have a positive impact on our communities, even in the worst of times," he adds.

A sudden burst of investments in technologies was essential to creating a successful response to the pandemic. Those same technologies will continue to serve patients and providers alike. But with the eventual closing of the pandemic will come new opportunities to add use cases, converge processes, and build upon ad hoc solutions.

After all, medicine was reimagined on the fly. Just imagine what can be done once there's time to reimagine the reimagining on purpose.

Lessons for leaders

  • Adoption of many healthcare technologies was accelerated in the pandemic, but new ones were a harder sell.
  • With so much of medicine online, networking capacity needs jumped quickly and significantly.
  • Healthcare has been a straggler in IT adoption, but it got kicked into action by being forced to operate online.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.