The impact COVID-19 has had on the world is evident. We communicate differently, work remotely, interact in new ways, and engage at a safe distance. Undeniably, the healthcare industry has taken the brunt of the pandemic, with the entire system put to the test. However, it also accelerated the adoption of virtual care technologies and set in motion a radical change in the way healthcare services are provided.
The New Patient-Centered Approach
In 2019, only 44% of healthcare professionals adopted telehealth. The complexities of reimbursement for the services, inconsistent access to Electronic Health Records (EHR), and a general lack of understanding of the technology are some of the reasons why physicians were reluctant. Patients themselves were skeptical of the level of personal contact and the quality of care they would receive.
The pandemic, however, forced the issue and broke down barriers to adoption. Patients quickly adapted to virtual care options and the assurance of safely accessing healthcare services — giving them a firsthand experience of the possibilities within telehealth and telemedicine. Healthcare providers also realized they could continue to deliver and distribute their professional services due to the prescient changes in CMS rules that facilitated the telehealth industry during the crisis.
Ironically, a positive outcome from this devastating health crisis is a patient-centric approach to primary care, one that empowers the individual to be engaged from the onset. Beyond having direct control over services such as prescription refills, the flexibility of scheduling, and health data access, telehealth has made patients active partners with their medical professionals when it comes to decisions about their health and well-being.
Telehealth and telemedicine also radically shifted the point-of-care, bringing healthcare to the individual and not the other way around. Specialist treatments and extended care are facilitated through technology, allowing solutions such as home visits, appointments for patients with cognitive impairments, access to physical and occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists.
The swift adoption of virtual care during COVID-19 was not without problems, and it introduced some significant challenges to the health system.
- Technical barriers. Telehealth is dependent on a patient’s access to internet services, hardware (a computer or smart device), and basic tech literacy. Many rural communities lack the connectivity to support telehealth technology and drive its success. The elderly and non-tech savvy individuals were further isolated and disenfranchised by the sudden removal of access brought about by lockdowns and socializing restrictions.
- Resistance to change. Before the pandemic, some physicians had video visit capability, but a very small number of them planned to utilize the technology. Some concerns included medical accuracies and the increased possibility of errors, security, regulatory restrictions, the high cost of technology, and licensing. The question remains: will physicians return to the pre-pandemic status quo once the crisis is resolved?
- Lack of training. There was a steep learning curve for medical professionals to provide optimal healthcare in a virtual format. Not only were they tasked to navigate the technology, but they also had to learn on-the-job how to offer the same level of expert care and accurate diagnosis via a digital platform. While this agility during a public health emergency is commendable, is it sustainable? Will a lack of training quickly catch up and eventually compromise the quality of care provided over the long term?
- Unpreparedness. Healthcare providers were fast to mobilize and adapt. Many that had not invested in digitization had to build their infrastructure from the ground up, quickly align with vendors, and push out unfamiliar technology. Many are still trying to catch up and address operational gaps and failures, reevaluate their vendor relationships, train and upskill staff, and address technical platform issues.
Moving Forward with Digital Health
Before the pandemic, virtual care was considered an added, if unnecessary, benefit. Now, however it has become a “must-have.” At the start of the pandemic, it was an emergency solution; it’s now become the norm. Hospitals, medical practices, and specialist labs that had invested in their digitization before the crisis are seeing a return on their investment and are poised to capitalize on the adoption and growth of virtual care technologies. Many are turning to innovative technologies such as these to bolster their patient services and solutions:
- Data analytics to help reduce medication errors, predict high-risk medical conditions, improve operational costs, enhance patient care, and increase engagement.
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to support healthcare providers to deliver faster service, diagnose medical conditions, analyze data, and augment precision medicine, medical imaging, genomics, and more.
- Digital medical devices to shift patient healthcare from reactive to preventative and maintenance. Devices such as a digital stethoscope, a wallet-size EKG, an oximeter that monitors oxygen levels, and a connected blood pressure monitor create a valuable patient-physician partnership.
- Predictive analysis to identify illnesses and diseases that will become major problems in the future, and provide early warnings of epidemics.
- Virtual reality to assist with surgery simulation, robotic surgery, diagnostics, nursing, skills training, and even phobia and autism treatments.
A Focus on “Care” in the Future of Healthcare
COVID-19 showed the healthcare industry what is possible. Healthcare providers now know what they are capable of, the speed at which things can be implemented, and how quickly regulations can be exacted.
However, healthcare’s digital transformation doesn’t stop with investing in hardware, software, and new technologies. There is an even greater need to invest in human resources — training the users of these healthcare innovations, the practitioners who will adapt and evolve the technology, and the leaders who will provide a new level of care where the patient is at the heart of the digital transformation.