Before the pandemic shook the globe in 2020, our world was shifting to more digital-centric experiences. After COVID-19’s unwelcome appearance, the demand for a connected world quickened, showing us a need for enhanced drug delivery, wearable devices, and apps for remote monitoring. Additionally, an increased importance was placed on patient engagement and adherence to health and treatment plans, as health maintenance fell to the wayside when the world shut down, and attention was diverted primarily to COVID-19 victims.
The healthcare realm turned upside down as infections and deaths skyrocketed. As a result of the pandemic, many hospital systems suffered monetarily, putting a halt to surplus IT projects and digital initiatives. Ironically, navigating COVID-19 also increased awareness of our growing need for digital and remote alternatives in healthcare.
COVID-19’s Impact on the Healthcare Industry and Patient Care
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, accessing healthcare services was challenging. Even with limited availability of routine and emergency medical care, many people chose to forgo standard check-ups and treatment to avoid possible exposure to the virus.
Data collected by TRACIE—the U.S. federal government’s healthcare emergency preparedness information gateway—showed the following COVID-19 healthcare delivery impacts:
- Negative behavior changes in patients due to increased stress, leading to heightened risks for long-term health impacts
- 60% fewer visits to preventative care appointments, dental and eye care practices, cancer treatment facilities, and specialty care practices for screening and ongoing management of chronic conditions in March and April 2020
- 40% decrease in emergency visits and a reduction of acute care outpatient visits
- 76% decrease in urgent referrals from general practitioners to cancer specialists for cases of suspected cancer since the start of the pandemic
- 13-87% of COVID-19 patients expected to experience mid- to long-term continuation of at least one symptom of the virus post-infection
- A 3,060% increase in telemedicine claims from the preceding year per a FAIR Health review of insurance claims from 2020
- Postponement or some form of disruption of current clinical trials and funds for future non-COVID-19 related medical research potentially being reduced, redirected, or redistributed
- Significant increase in new patients (including healthcare workers) seeking mental health services
- A reduction in orders for childhood vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by about 11 million doses in 2020
- Reduced number of organ procurements and transplants nationwide by nearly half in April 2020
All these factors put an increased strain on the healthcare industry as demand for medical services resumed after severe COVID-19 infections lessened. Many patients were playing “catch-up” on their health maintenance as the world returned to a state of new normalcy.
Others experienced a need for more significant medical care. Unfortunately, unavailability, inaccessibility, unemployment, lack of benefits, and fear of falling ill kept many from reaching out to their healthcare providers or attending regularly scheduled visits—thereby exacerbating the burden on the healthcare system.
These impacts don’t even begin to touch on the pandemic’s direct effect on staff shortages and finances. Nevertheless, the impression of COVID-19 on healthcare workers was significant and severe. Per a brief published by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), a division of the Office of Health Policy, in May 2022, the pandemic “put extreme stress on the healthcare workforce in the United States, leading to workforce shortages as well as increased healthcare worker burnout, exhaustion, and trauma.”
Additionally, many healthcare workers had their hours drastically cut, were furloughed, or lost their jobs due to slowed, delayed, or closed business. Elective and other minor medical procedures or entire departments were cut back or eliminated to avoid unnecessary exposure and make way for the focused care of COVID-19 victims, leading to some healthcare workers leaving and not returning even after things calmed down.
Vaccine mandates further complicated a return to the workforce for those who didn’t feel comfortable with the shot. ASPE relayed that by mid-January 2022 (during the Omicron surge), “the 7-day average of hospitals reporting critical staffing shortages peaked at 22%.”
Hospitals have had to pay to bring in contract staff and nursing to fill the gaps. This necessary solution continued to throw off their budgets and put the healthcare industry at a standstill as it dealt with the glaring problem—from one crisis to another. Mainly, budgeting for IT projects saw a sharp decline, as hospital administrators were determined to sacrifice digital initiatives already in place (or in the planning stages) for adequate patient care—the right choice at the time.
Current Healthcare Trends Post-COVID-19: How Is the Industry Evolving?
The pandemic’s effects were and still are far-reaching. It was “panic mode” for a while, but even in the aftermath, things aren’t returning to “normal”—and that’s to be expected. We’re just beginning to see the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the healthcare industry—but the good news is, they’re not all negative.
Notably, digital health options are accelerating as the healthcare industry returns to a more profitable state. The health systems that adopt a more modern structure for connecting and interacting with their patients will see a more productive future ripe with possibility and innovation—to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis unscathed and more abundant in practice than before.
Following the pandemic, people have been thrust into a new reality of digital requirements. COVID-19 showed us the essentialness of telehealth, remote monitoring, and at-home diagnostics. Additionally, you should expect to see advances in genetic engineering, cloud-based operations, big data, drones and robotics, and machine learning and human-machine interfaces (e.g., biosensors). Finally, AI, IoT, and machine-to-machine communications can increase efficiency, accuracy, and speed in clinical development and supply chain processes.
Consumerization is another healthcare transformation that’s already happening. When implementing IT initiatives, it’s important to remember the diversity of your patients, who now have plentiful options for their healthcare. Delivering optimal outcomes means fully adopting emerging technologies that can improve your organization’s performance and rank you strategically among your competition. Specifically, leveraging technology to deliver healthcare to underserved populations can give you the upper hand moving into 2023.
IT/Digital Initiatives in Healthcare: What’s Being Done and What Should You Be Doing?
After significant disruptions that began in early 2020 due to the global pandemic, going digital doesn’t have to be another roadblock for your organization. Instead, it should be a gateway to heightened communications, engagement, and access for your patients. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that “the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide, and to develop knowledge societies.”
Applied to healthcare, specifically, the United Nations General Assembly found that technology led to “breakthroughs in government in the provision of healthcare, with greater numbers of people having access to services and data that might previously have been out of reach or unaffordable.” This feedback was based on an overall review of outcomes retrieved by the World Summit on Information Society regarding implementing specified global digital health strategies.
Vantage Market Research predicted that the healthcare cloud computing market will reach $128.19 billion by 2028, with an 18.74% CAGR from 2021 to 2028—meaning if you’re not already making advances to cloud technology, it’s worth factoring into your IT strategy. Also, transitioning to cloud-based operations may make you less vulnerable to cyberattacks and data breaches. Lastly, it’s the greener choice for companies trying to be more eco-friendly in today’s environmentally conscious climate.
As part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025, it is the goal that “the strategic and innovative use of digital and cutting-edge information and communications technologies” might ensure that 1 billion more people benefit from better access, services, and health and wellbeing. Some of the highlighted technologies that could help achieve these objectives include:
- Internet of Things (IoT)
- Virtual care
- Remote monitoring
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- Big data analytics
- Smart wearables
- Tools enabling data exchange and storage
- Tools enabling remote data capture and the exchange of data and sharing of relevant information across the healthcare ecosystem
Key benefits of implementing these technologies include:
- The creation of a continuum of care
- Enhanced health outcomes
- Improved medical diagnoses
- Reliable data-based treatment decisions
- Convenient, efficient, and accurate digital therapeutics
- Remotely monitored clinical trials
- Self-management of care
- Patient- and person-centered care
- Professionals with heightened evidence-based knowledge, skills, and competence to support healthcare aims
To develop effective digital health initiatives that are patient- or person-focused, it’s essential to consider “transparency, accessibility, scalability, replicability, interoperability, privacy, security, and confidentiality,” per WHO’s report. WHO states that when implementing new digital strategies, you must prioritize your patients’ health and benefits in a “safe, secure, reliable, equitable, and sustainable” way.
Additionally, your methods should be aligned and integrated with the appropriate, supportive infrastructure to avoid your good intentions falling short. Lastly, affordability is also a prime factor as consumerization envelops the healthcare industry, so you should be aware of cost-saving measures as you promote IT transformation within your organization and put more digital options within the grasp of your patients.
2023 Trajectory: Reallocating the Budget to Information Technology
Presently, the most significant challenge for the industry is financial recovery, and it will take some time for many health systems to bounce back from the hit to their budgets. In May 2020, the American Hospital Association (AHA) estimated a total four-month financial impact of $202.6 billion in losses for American hospitals and health systems. This number equates to an average $50.7 billion monthly loss at the start of the pandemic. Losses could be attributed to:
- Payments for COVID-19 patients
- Canceled services, including elective surgeries, outpatient treatment, and reduced emergency department services
- Additional costs for the purchase of required PPE and needed COVID-19-related equipment and supplies
- Costs of additional support or services for hard-hit hospitals or those with staff shortages, including providing childcare, housing, and transportation for frontline workers, and medical screening and treatment for those infected by COVID-19
According to Fierce Healthcare, the amount of money in the bank and the organization’s size are important factors in each health system’s overall position post-COVID-19. Most importantly, though, those with established digital strategies and a handle on telehealth operations are among the healthcare systems that will fare better on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis.
So, as the industry finds some renewed balance, redistributing funds back into the IT budget may be the best way to excel through the end of 2022 and into the future. Just like other areas of healthcare, though, the IT sector is presently experiencing a shortage of trained IT professionals capable of filling cybersecurity and other technology gaps as they move to enhanced digital functionalities.
AI can help fill some of these gaps with effective risk management. Additionally, cloud technology built into your digital transformation strategy with security and reliability at the forefront could negate the need for an increased cybersecurity workforce by lessening the burden on your current staff.
Lastly, having a trusted partner to provide the needed support and expertise to help you enhance your healthcare IT capabilities can help you transition to a more digital-friendly organization that best serves the needs of your patients into the New Year and beyond. As the world moves forward, it’s important to move with it, remaining one step ahead of your competition by creating a system that operates more efficiently and precisely while providing remote and other alternate options for care.
Oxford Solutions: How Can We Help Your Healthcare Organization Push Digital Initiatives?
COVID-19 has monopolized the healthcare space for years. It’s time to take back the industry by creating a bigger, better, and more modern experience for your patients—one that encourages participation and interest in ongoing medical care and treatment to get our world back to optimal health with increased ease and satisfaction.
It’s becoming more apparent that doctor-patient interaction with increased connectivity, involvement, and convenience can result in more personalized, consistent, and reliable medical care. Part of that process is getting to know the patient. At a digital level, this includes accumulating relevant data that can be used to determine areas where support may be needed, what services might be required, and how to maximize health potential. Trust is paramount to carrying out this mission.
At Oxford, we believe in relationships built on trust, starting with getting to know you and providing The Right Talent. Right Now.® When you partner with us, you can be assured that you will get the knowledge and expertise of some of the top healthcare IT candidates worldwide—and you’ll get who you need when you need them. We’ve already built a network of professionals ready and waiting to work with you.