COVID-19 Exposes Technology Disparities, Opportunities Across Hospital Ecosystem
June 22, 2021, 11:00:00 PM
The pandemic has taught hospital leaders about the limitations of their clinical communication tools and how to address those disparities
Healthcare Innovation Group
Angel Mena, M.D., Industry Voice
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed critical gaps in technology across the hospital ecosystem, from remote work to telehealth. One of these shortcomings is the ability to collaborate around patient care. In the early stages of the crisis, many healthcare teams communicated virtually to minimize viral spread. This experience taught hospitals about the limitations of their clinical communication tools—and how to address those disparities in the post-pandemic era.
Communicating in Real-Time
One key learning for hospital leaders is that having disaster plans in place is not sufficient to handle a rapidly evolving public health crisis. Teams need technology that allows for real-time communication, especially when information is changing quickly. For instance, when a hospital needs to communicate a new treatment protocol or a requirement for providers to wear specific personal protective equipment (PPE), it must ensure that every team member receives and reads the message right away.
However, most existing communication channels that hospitals use do not support this type of need. Gathering everyone in a room to share information in person isn’t always safe or practical; emails get buried in inboxes and secure text messaging doesn’t integrate with other systems, like provider schedules. Teams need a software solution designed specifically for clinical collaboration – a clinical collaboration platform.
The pandemic illustrated that communication delays can hold back even the most engaged team members. In the early days, some teams scrambled to access resources—not because resources weren’t available, but because of issues with communication and coordination across specialties or across health systems. In these and other situations, a clinical collaboration platform connects team members through role-based communication, helping people reach one another efficiently when minutes matter.
Navigating Privacy Regulations
During the pandemic, many hospital teams relied on tools, like messaging systems and video conferencing platforms, that weren’t designed for healthcare. Using systems that aren’t HIPAA-compliant raises concerns around privacy and security, especially when meeting with patients via telehealth or handling sensitive patient data.
So far, governmental regulators have accommodated emergency use cases for non-compliant communication tools, but in the post-COVID era, regulators will expect healthcare systems to comply with more stringent policies. The pandemic has accelerated the transition to telehealth among many specialties, and clinical collaboration is the next technology frontier for healthcare systems. However, hospitals will need to adopt collaboration platforms that enable effective data governance to ensure patient privacy and regulatory compliance. Retrofitting systems that were not designed for healthcare to accommodate these requirements can be complicated and expensive. Here again, hospitals need to adopt platforms that were designed with their unique needs in mind.
Supporting Clinical Workflows
Teams and roles
What makes communication even more complex is that hospital team member roles and teams are dynamic - ever-changing in shifts and roles. During the pandemic, hospitals had to create multidisciplinary COVID-19 response teams that never existed before—tapping infectious disease specialists, pharmacists and other experts to consult on patient care.
Unfortunately, many hospitals use a disparate, outdated collection of tools, including paper schedules, pagers and email. These tools do not integrate with each other and can’t account for changes in real-time. For example, if a provider’s schedule changes at the last minute, their colleagues in another department may not know whom else to contact—especially if they need to consult a group of specialists, such as a cardiologist group.
Instead, a clinical collaboration platform allows hospitals to consolidate technology and support clinical workflows. This type of platform allows hospitals to quickly create, implement and scale new teams. And role-based communication allows people to reach the right person at the right time (for instance, the nephrologist on call) rather than having to track down a named individual who may not be known.
In the post-COVID-19 era, hospitals need the flexibility to manage fast-evolving teams. It is critical for everyone on the care team to be unified under the same collaboration platform. This connectivity enables providers to rapidly communicate and access essential resources, like people, ICU rooms, and even oxygen or medications.
Beyond the clinical collaboration, we have learned that coordinating supply chain is essential in delivering care without delays. Creating teams and roles that will facilitate delivery of clinical supplies has proven essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scalability and ease of use
A clinical collaboration platform also allows hospitals to rapidly provision, onboard and integrate new users when staffing needs ebb and flow. The ability to bring on new providers, such as semi-retired physicians, or students in nursing or medical schools, helped hospitals meet peak demands during the pandemic. In the future, hospitals will streamline this process with tools that bring new users into the fold as quickly as possible.
From Documentation to Communication
Following the shift to electronic health records (EHR) systems, clinical collaboration is the next major evolution for healthcare systems in the post-COVID era. As EHRs reach maturity, hospitals are recognizing the limited scope of these platforms.
EHRs support documentation, revenue cycle management including coding and billing, and other administrative functions. But they weren’t built from the ground up to enable clinical collaboration among providers. For instance, while EHRs house vast amounts of data, providers don’t need all of it at once. This information overload has been linked to physician burnout. In a national Medscape survey, 47% of physician respondents said that burnout has a “strong or severe impact” on their lives.
To mitigate these issues, a clinical collaboration platform integrates with the EHR and other critical systems to “push” and “pull” the right amounts of information a provider needs at the point of care. Working within a clinical collaboration platform allows providers to access a single source of truth about a patient’s care plan.
Streamlining this data can deliver a major return on investment—including improved referral patterns, readmission rates, length of stay, patient satisfaction and contribute to organizational objectives around improving clinician well-being and satisfaction. For example, a provider meeting with a patient may be able to contact another specialist and schedule a follow-up appointment before leaving the exam room. And on the other end, that specialist can receive the message without disrupting their workflow, pulling their focus from patients, or accessing multiple systems – a major contributor to burnout.
The EHR on its own doesn’t improve patient outcomes—but the ability to act on EHR information does. Providers can improve outcomes by using a collaboration platform to connect with other team members involved in patient care. Ultimately, this collaboration helps providers enhance continuity of care and communicate a unified message to patients. All these factors impact patient experience and satisfaction.
This evolution is part of a larger culture shift within healthcare from documentation to communication. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently moved to simplify “confusing and time-consuming claims documentation” for providers as part of its Patients over Paperwork Initiative. While documentation is here to stay, hospital systems can reduce the burden on providers by streamlining the information needed at the point of care.
As hospitals seek to close their information technology gaps, they need to adopt intuitive, scalable tools that support how providers really work. In this vein, healthcare can take cues from consumer-centric industries, like hospitality, retail, and tech. Treating providers as customers by anticipating and meeting their needs ultimately helps those providers deliver better patient care.
Beyond the Walls of the Hospital
With the immediate crisis of COVID-19 behind them, hospitals have a new opportunity to assess their larger ecosystem. Patients arrive at the hospital from a community setting, often via EMS. Integrating a clinical collaboration platform that connects EMS to the hospital can help providers, such as stroke or cardiac teams, better prepare for patients before they arrive.
When a patient leaves the hospital, the transition back to the community—whether post-acute care or home—can be rife with challenges. The future of healthcare includes stronger partnerships between hospitals, external partners such as EMS, and other care sites, so patients have access to a unified care plan and resources wherever they go. Aligning with post-acute care providers can reduce hospital length of stay and improve value-based care. Clinical collaboration platforms enable greater connectivity with partners and benefit patient outcomes.
While the healthcare sector is traditionally hesitant to change, the pandemic has pushed hospital leaders to embrace technological advances to deliver care. Forward-thinking healthcare organizations are adopting clinical collaboration platforms to align their teams and improve patient outcomes.
To successfully launch a clinical collaboration platform, hospitals need strong leadership with a vision for the future of healthcare. Many clinicians are understandably reluctant to adopt more software unless it makes their lives easier. It is critical to invite clinician input into a digital health transformation process, integrating the perspectives of the chief medical officer and chief nursing officer along with the chief information officer and chief innovation officer. These leaders and their teams are on the front lines of patient care, and they deserve to be represented in decision-making that affects clinical workflows.
The pandemic opened the door to cloud-based collaboration, and now that healthcare systems have seen the potential, that door is not going to close. Now, it’s up to hospitals to implement the lessons learned from their experiences. Visionary healthcare systems can transform a breaking point into an opportunity. Clinical collaboration platforms can help mitigate the burdens of data overload and unlock new, more human ways of working together. As a result, providers can find more satisfaction in their work—and ultimately improve patient outcomes.
Angel Mena, M.D., works as a primary care physician and hospitalist, and currently serves as a faculty physician for an internal medicine residency program. She is also the Chief Medical Officer of clinical collaboration platform Halo Health.