Healthcare Must Embrace Innovation Beyond the Pandemic
By Niko Skievaski
Niko Skievaski, MA is co-founder and president of Redox of Madison, WI.
It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. However, I’d say 2020 created a permutation of the adage, especially for healthcare: Necessity is the mother of adoption. The COVID-19 pandemic forced healthcare’s hand to embrace technologies that had been used sparingly, if at all, by many providers. While this sudden burst of adoption was positive, the pandemic showed that years of putting off innovation left many healthcare organizations unprepared to smoothly transition into the use of new technology.
The question is this. Will the innovation adoption momentum continue, or is this newfound appetite for tech solutions a bridge over the troubled water of the pandemic? The optimist and realist in me don’t always agree, but, in this case, they’re on the same page. I believe we’re headed toward not only embracing healthcare innovation, but also establishing a foundation to get ahead of demand. Let’s take a closer look.
How we got here
Few healthcare providers would argue against innovation, but tech implementation has typically been viewed as nice to have, as opposed to need to have. Cost, time, resistance to change, and administrative red tape are just a few of the big reasons a healthcare organization might have avoided adopting a particular technology.
However, some healthcare systems, like Providence St. Joseph, have taken a different approach, and had made huge bets on technology and partnerships in the years leading up to the pandemic. Such organizations have looked for experts outside of healthcare and targeted tech executives from Fortune 500 companies, developed innovative apps and funded startups, and created the necessary infrastructure that positioned them to operate in healthcare’s sudden new reality. Once the pandemic hit, these organizations only had to refine what was already in place, as opposed to scrambling to build from scratch.
Such foresight has proven extremely beneficial for practices transitioning to telehealth, as evidenced in a recent conversation I had with David Elkin, MDiv, PhD, founder and executive director of the Center for Advancement of Youth at University of Mississippi Medical Center. Dr. Elkin pointed out that videoconferencing has also allowed mental health providers to maintain regular visits with patients, which has been especially critical given the immeasurable emotional stress many patients are experiencing during the pandemic, especially those in underserved communities.
Many healthcare providers weren’t as prepared, and they found the pivot to telehealth challenging. That’s why, in March, the Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights loosened telehealth privacy restrictions to allow customer-facing platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime to be used for telehealth visits. Enforcement of potential HIPAA penalties was suspended for healthcare providers using what the announcement called “everyday communications technologies” to serve patients during the pandemic. Additionally, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded services to include telehealth.
This opened up the opportunity for many doctors to start offering video visits and telehealth visits, and, during the last week of March 2020, telehealth appointments increased 154% compared to the same period in 2019. The Zooms of the world served as an appropriate, quick fix to an emergency situation, but they aren’t likely to be viable, long-term telehealth solutions.
The pandemic also exposed the outdated nature of many legacy solutions, like EHRs. Many EHR systems struggled to quickly digest and share new data with disparate systems, as healthcare organizations experienced a dramatic increase in daily patient visits. Given the many benefits of interoperability during a pandemic, the burdensome interop approaches of many EHR systems were never clearer.
The lesson: Many healthcare organizations are realizing that staying ahead of the tech curve is a necessity, and they will take the steps required to integrate innovation.
The path moving forward
The sudden adoption of technology served healthcare well during the pandemic, as it addressed an immediate need. However, long-term success requires a new approach for how innovation will make the patient’s role easier and more in line with the expectations of living in a digital world.
Expanding telehealth services should be a top priority, especially for providers with patients in underserved and rural communities. It’s also time to refine the patient and provider digital experience. Using the mental health example from earlier, Dr. Elkin points out that there are aspects of an in-person visit that don’t currently translate via video, such as subtle movements and gestures that can offer deeper insight into a patient’s feelings. Reexamining the areas where telehealth falls a little short can help create a richer experience for the patient and empower providers to provide the most comprehensive care possible.
This doesn’t mean that such decisions are easy or inexpensive. However, organizations must create an environment where the innovators (software developers) can easily build and deploy the tools required to enhance telehealth capabilities. If rolled out in the spirit of the regulation, the 21st Century Cures rules are a big step in this direction.
One area of innovation that healthcare providers should give great consideration to is artificial intelligence. While the initial deployment of AI in the provider workflow didn’t take off, robotic process automation (RPA) is showing promise at an administrative level, as hospitals and physician practices are trying to do more with less.
AI is generating revenue and cost savings by taking on tasks like scheduling, benefit discovery, invoice processing, vendor management, and other duties, to free up staff to concentrate on more patient-facing needs. But AI also has the potential for helping value-based care and cost sharing efforts by identifying what each patient costs an organization, then identifying ways to keep them engaged in their healthcare.
Though many healthcare providers have been slow to adopt innovative solutions, the industry has reached a turning point for change. The motivation to implement cutting-edge solutions has never been higher, and there are more creative minds than ever before, standing at the ready to arm providers with the tools necessary to improve care and reduce costs. This preparation and approach will help healthcare further navigate the pandemic and position the industry to make unprecedented progress once things are back to normal — whatever normal may look like.