How the Pandemic Accelerated the Need for Operational Change in Hospitals

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By Doc D’Errico

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced large-scale operational changes in virtually every industry, from education to finance to media and entertainment. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in healthcare – particularly in hospitals.

COVID-19 has stressed hospital workers, systems and IT infrastructures in ways no one has ever seen before or expected. It has exposed weaknesses that otherwise may not have been made clear. Priorities are being shuffled to get through this week’s challenges and prepare for new issues in the coming months. Plans that were on the drawing board for next year or later in the decade are now being accelerated to deal with the current crisis.

On the IT side, hospitals have been facing capacity issues for some time. Data volumes are growing by double-digit percentages every year. Use of electronic health records (EHR) and collaborative healthcare processes are forcing hospitals to add more storage and develop new ways to access and manage their data. They have to integrate data from patient systems with other providers, payers, pharmaceutical suppliers, researchers and partners, while guaranteeing the data adheres to strict compliance and privacy mandates. The stewards of all this data must pull off this balancing act at scale, under tremendous cost-containment pressure and with no margin for error.

That was all true before the pandemic. Now that the landscape has changed so drastically, hospitals have had to set up new procedures, establish new ways to communicate and do more information exchanges to and from remote locations. 

Storage will play a critical role

To respond to the pandemic itself – and to the challenges beyond – hospitals will need more effective storage. They’ll need ample supplies to manage the huge influxes of data expected in the coming years. And they’ll need the storage to be flexible and secure enough to manage the many new technology applications being adopted to streamline processes during the COVID crisis. 

Like in other industries, telecommunications upgrades have moved to the top of healthcare providers’ agendas. Healthcare professionals still need to apply direct patient care on site, but many administrative functions can be completed by workers in remote locations. To enable this, hospitals have expanded communication capabilities, integrating telehealth applications as part of their care offerings, and pouring resources into collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack.

There’s also been a sudden spike in virtual care capabilities for non-critical health issues. To manage the flurry of calls from patients wanting to talk to doctors about possible COVID-19 symptoms, hospitals are turning to self-triaging tools. Patients can check for symptoms and log information into a queue before being put through to a doctor.

Hospitals are also accelerating their use of artificial intelligence (AI) to battle COVID-19. Many institutions are scanning patients at entrances to take temperatures and pick up on other symptoms, including sweat and discoloration. AI is also monitoring COVID-19 symptoms, providing background support for CT scans and automating hospital operations. 

Data needs to be analyzed, secured

All of this technology-based care has created great alternative healthcare options, but it also created an even greater surplus of patient data. For example, rather than do additional lab work on site, many have moved the work and data out to local facilities. That alleviates congestion in hospitals, but it also requires additional data transfers back and forth from the hospital to the lab. That data needs to be backed up, analyzed and secured. 

Having a responsive storage infrastructure is critical to hospitals’ futures. Hospitals are dealing with life-critical systems. If doctors can’t get access to patients’ electronic health records, procedures might not take place, or might not be performed with all the necessary information – causing potential serious consequences. 

Is the data available? Is it accurate? Is the integrity of the information being preserved? These are the questions hospitals need to be asking of their storage infrastructures in order to provide the best patient care.

Many hospitals have moved beyond static on-premises computing models. The more active IT adopters have essentially created their own hybrid clouds – working with external SaaS (Software as a Service) providers for integration between their systems and their patients and sub-providers as well as between units and divisions of their centers.

But they’re still facing challenges managing storage dynamically. If they suddenly need new storage, they generally have to commit to expensive short-term storage rentals or to leases that lock in spending over a period of years. In the future, hospitals can tap new, more flexible storage models that provide a number of benefits. Elastic pricing structures allow hospitals to temporarily dial up capacity for an analytics project on a reduced-price basis and then reduce the storage spend after the need passes

Additionally, in modern healthcare, life and death decisions are made based on collected and historical data. Ensuring that storage provides 100% data availability guarantees patients’ well-being and rapid response to critical needs.  

Aultman Hospital sets the pace

Aultman Hospital, a 1,032-bed facility in Canton, Ohio, implemented a number of aggressive changes to respond to the challenges posed in the early months of the pandemic. The first projects involved ensuring ongoing operations and keeping patients connected with their families.

Aultman repurposed a series of mobile workstations to enable each unit within the hospital to provide video conferencing between patients and their families. It created a virtual visitation for patients to connect with family members from across the country. One patient, who couldn’t speak because of an intubation, used a whiteboard the staff provided to communicate with family members in Florida and Colorado. To connect more than 1,000 remote, non-clinical workers, the IT team set up 300 virtual desktops, adding additional storage to enable these, along with VPN connections for laptop users. 

“From a technical perspective, we used duct tape and creativity to get things up and running,” Chief Technology Officer Rafael Gonzalez said. “Moving forward, we need to rethink everything, especially from a financial perspective. Doing more with less, being able to scale cost-effectively, and using technology to support new challenges like controlling patient and staff traffic flow and social distancing will be essential to our success.” 

Institutions like Aultman Hospital have been planning for long-term changes in their industry for years. Data and storage are playing increasingly important roles in ongoing hospital operations. The institutions that plan well for the future – and react to those needs now – will be ready for the seismic shift that’s coming over the next couple of decades.

Doc D’Errico is VP, Office of the CTO, Infinidat.

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