As the COVID-19 pandemic fanned out across the world, hospitals and healthcare providers had to balance the immediate needs of a fast-growing population of COVID-19 patients with the care they needed to provide to all other patients with acute and non-acute ailments. All the while, keeping everyone safe and removed from possible exposure to the virus.
In response, healthcare technology leaders quickly partnered with telecommunications companies to ramp up data capabilities and network infrastructures to support a telehealth system. These technological updates were necessary to support the use of video chats for healthcare providers to do virtual consultations with patients - allowing them to provide care to non-acute patients isolating at home while also monitoring COVID patients after their hospital visits.
Telehealth and virtual visits had slowly been gaining popularity before the pandemic, but healthcare organizations did not have the infrastructure in place to handle the practice on a widespread basis. While 84% of commercial insurance subscribers said that they would use video or online services in a 2019 survey from Definitive Healthcare, only one-third of inpatient hospitals and 45% of outpatient facilities provided telehealth solutions or services.
“The crisis has pushed it to a whole new scale,” said Peter Fleischut, MD, Senior Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer for New York-Presbyterian Hospital, during a recent webinar. His hospital had stepped up its telehealth capabilities in 2017 in 50 different practice areas, and before COVID-19, its providers were seeing about 1,000 patients per week. When the pandemic struck, that capability was immediately ramped up to roughly one-quarter million visits over a few weeks.
When state governments advised citizens to practice social distancing and in some cases shelter in place, hospitals had to quickly assess the technology and connectivity available to provide care virtually and safely. For instance, the 422-bed New York-Presbyterian Hospital was forced to more than double its capacity to host 874 beds in 19 days. As a result, the hospital had to upgrade network capacity to monitor more than 10,000 mobile devices. The devices could measure blood pressure, oxygen levels, and other critical vitals of homebound patients, as well as connect them to specialists and other “wrap-around” services such as virtual registration, counseling, and interpreters.
“We were aggressive to make sure we had as much network capacity as we could,” Fleischut said. “We were growing so quickly any time we hit 40% data utilization, we would double our capacity and try to stay ahead of it because we didn’t know where the ceiling was going to be.”
During a health crisis, being able to reach everyone is crucial, and unfortunately, not all people have access to the same connectivity.
“A person may not be digitally native, but they probably are one degree separated from someone who is, giving them the ability to get tools by their caregivers, family members, and trusted sources with their consent,” said Carina Edwards, CEO of Quil, a venture launched in 2018 between Comcast and Independence Healthcare in Massachusetts. Quil provides a healthcare app easily accessible on smart TVs and mobile devices via voice remote. Quil provided COVID-19 information and resources to about 125,000 subscribers on their TV.
Edwards says that about 80% of in-person interactions are forgotten because patients are overwhelmed with information, and telehealth allows for an on-demand resource allowing providers to check in with patients and monitor their progress at home. However, she says technology must account for social factors such as language barriers, cultural differences that affect understanding of information, and varying reading levels. This is where different means of communication such as videos and animations can act as helpful explainers.
Healthcare organizations worldwide made the switch to virtual care as a result of COVID-19, however, the medical response needed during the pandemic challenged current technological capabilities and caused technology leaders to rethink how telehealth will be delivered in the future.
Demand for telehealth spiked up to 30%, Fleischut says, and it is expected demand will continue to grow. About 59% of consumers said they are likely to use telehealth in the future, according to a survey from Black Book Market Research. In order to support this increased demand, healthcare organizations will need adequate bandwidth and connectivity to leverage the applications and video tools required to meet the needs of at-home patients.
As a result, healthcare is emerging as a leading early adopter of software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN). SD-WAN enables the use of widely available and affordable broadband that eliminates bandwidth constraints and empowers smooth online patient experiences, unhindered cloud and inter-office communications, and crystal-clear transmissions of X-rays, video and other critical imagery.
Telehealth providers must also gain the trust of patients, and that means securing their private information. Security is paramount as accreditation requirements such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) mandate the protection of sensitive patient data.
Ethernet has traditionally been the technology of choice for healthcare’s needs, but it requires a wired connection, and consumers increasingly demand a wireless connection that can provide both security and convenience.
For instance, single sign on (SSO) authentication technology allows both users and providers to use one set of login credentials across multiple applications. This saves time and helps protect information In the future, SSO may be used for applications that allow patients to provide a digital signature to consent for various healthcare services.
Another benefit of telehealth is that it allows 24/7 accessibility to the provider, whereas physical locations are often limited to set hours of operation. While the need for a physical location for in-person visits will always be preferable to some people, and necessary in certain situations, telehealth care may change the way office space is utilized.
Back-office and administration tasks such as registration will no longer require a waiting room, for instance, as these services could all become virtual. In addition, counseling, education, and other outreach services could be done remotely. As a benefit, technology will help reduce unnecessary stress on overwhelmed healthcare professionals and allow them to provide better care to patients.
“It will help with burnout, giving job satisfaction back to people who have to play many different roles,” Edwards said. “Technology is the fabric that stitches together to deliver on the promise of connected ecosystems and the right information at the right time.”
Healthcare has been on the verge of a digital transformation that would improve care delivery and give consumers more control over their own healthcare education and accessibility. The technology was available, and COVID-19 became the catalyst for healthcare organizations to accelerate their own technology adoption. Telehealth is poised to change how providers care for patients, and a true digital transformation will set the foundation necessary to make this a reliable and viable option for providers and their patients.
For more information on how businesses can use technology to navigate new work environments and expectations, explore the rest of our “Driving Digital Agility” blog series.