May 17, 2021 | Lynn Schear
The strain on the U.S. healthcare system that began with the appearance of COVID-19 in 2020 continues to highlight structural deficiencies as well as strengths. Coronavirus sparked innovation – and a hard look at how the delivery of healthcare can be improved.
According to a recent MIT study, "The spread of the virus revealed shortages in basic equipment and hospital beds, the disproportionate effects of disease on the marginalized, the challenge of prevention rather than cure, the limits of insurance-based models to provide equitable care, and our unacknowledged dependence on the labor of underpaid health care workers."
The pandemic shone a bright light on the difference in care between haves and have-nots, while reminding us that public health crises touch us all, not just the marginalized or financially instable.
Skipping the waiting room
Perhaps the most obvious shift in American healthcare was a surge in remote visits, with patients unwilling to venture out for in-person visits. Telehealth and other patient-focused platforms exploded in 2020, and are forecast to shape outpatient care even more profoundly in the next few years.
One factor: the proactive model of accountable care networks, which incentivize the adoption of telehealth and other home-based care. Dallas-based Southwestern Health Resources, for example, saw a sharp drop-off in diabetic maintenance visits to provider offices, and created a program that sent A1c testing kits straight to patients.
Telehealth also expanded with ‘virtual rooming assistants’, which efficiently guide patients through medical histories in digital exam rooms.
The overwhelmingly positive response to virtual care will create more demand for integrated records, communication and outreach technology that can level the playing field and make real progress toward more equitable care. The downside of the virtual model: cybersecurity.
"The digital transfer of information between patient and provider, followed by the online storage of healthcare data, can be a tempting draw for cybercriminals," business journalist Alicia Marsiglia notes in Insurance Business. "Theft of healthcare records is arguably the most lucrative form of cybercrime; a healthcare data record can be valued at up to $250 on the illegal market."
Data and next-level technology
Another accelerating trend is a focus on population health data and predictive analytics, another feature of accountable care networks’ shift toward value-based care, as opposed to the traditional, insurance-driven fee-for-service model.
Expect to see more organizations investing in technology that helps outpatient providers leverage Medicare and Medicaid financial rewards based on targeted prevention, such as colonoscopies for 50-and-older patients and prenatal scans for expecting mothers.
The noted overdependence on lower-paid workers is also forcing a re-examination of human error in safety protocols. Look for development of robotic cleaning and touchless interaction systems in care centers, as well as thermal imaging to detect possible infections. Health systems are also hoping to advance artificial intelligence systems that track exposures and vaccination rates within communities.
"Supplementary robots today are quickly taking care of tasks such as restocking, taking out the trash, and cleaning while the humans are spending more time with the patient," says Abeer Raza, founding partner of the future-focused business blog ReadWrite.
The human factor
Technology is on the rise, but 2020 saw healthcare support staff stretched to their breaking point nationwide. Nurses and other practitioners have worked overtime shifts filled with constant emergency intervention on COVID-19 wards without enough PPE – and their mental health continues to suffer.
Some hospitals and outpatient centers did it right when it came to supporting staffers: A new study by NYU Langone Health identified the ways healthcare employers will be looking to keep care providers on their feet.
"Our study demonstrates that institutional resources — such as supportive staff relationships, professional development, providing temporary housing and access to personal protective equipment — were associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression among nurses," says Christine Kovner, the study's lead author.
Innovation beyond the research lab
The Operation Warp Speed vaccine push showed off the power of innovative research and development, and federal health officials are also looking to redefine what a robust supply chain looks like for the nation’s hospitals and care centers.
PPE and ventilator shortages revealed cracks in the already splintered relationship between federal and corporate stockpiles in 2020, so larger marketplace owners are shifting their focus away from overseas suppliers and toward domestic vendors. Accompanying that shift: a conscious decision to prioritize resilience above strict standardization and cost-cutting measures.
In other words, healthcare decision-makers want to fill more orders within the U.S. from multiple small and medium-sized sources, even if products aren’t identical or at the lowest price point. Plans for shared rotation of stock among small and rural hospitals are also underway, to avoid waste and increase efficiencies for traditionally underserved patient populations nationwide.
COVID-19 was a wake-up call on countless levels, but both providers and regulators are using the lessons learned – and unprecedented federal funding and support – to create more accessible, equitable and efficient ways to keep Americans healthy. At a time with so many ideas on the table, it will be more vital than ever to break through the clutter with quality healthcare contacts.
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