By Bent Philipson
At its height, COVID-19 quite literally pushed the healthcare industry to its limits. Its impacts have been undeniably grim, with executives, physicians, nurses, and patients all being affected by its influence. But there is some optimism to be found. I not only believe the chaos of this past year has opened our eyes to the deep-seated issues that have plagued the industry for so long, but it’s driven us to take action so that we can usher in a new future in healthcare.
One positive outcome that came out of the pandemic has been the expansion of telehealth capabilities. Virtual visits aren’t new, but they’ve sat dormant as a commodity rather than what they really are: a necessary next step in patient care. Now that patients have experienced the convenience of telehealth, most prefer it to in-person care when possible — and who can blame them?
However, virtual visits alone don’t suffice for patients with more intensive, long-term care needs. In order to be sustainable, telehealth must be supported by remote patient monitoring (RPM) in these instances. Virtual visits, even if they’re more frequent, can enhance patient-doctor interactions, but they can’t stand as a replacement for the continuous monitoring and examinations that elderly patients and patients with chronic conditions require.
Remote patient monitoring during COVID-19
Before COVID-19, RPM was used to help healthcare employees and their patients manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. By digitally monitoring a person’s condition, healthcare staff could track any changes in real-time and use that data to inform whether a change warranted a hospital visit or not. The purpose of these technologies was to keep people out of the hospital if they didn’t need to be there. It’s these same benefits that became critical during the pandemic for two reasons.
Patients being monitored through RPM technologies were able to avoid pointless trips to a hospital or other healthcare facility in the midst of the pandemic. Because patients with chronic conditions are more susceptible to diseases, unnecessary hospital visits have helped to save lives. Additionally, technologies commonly used in remote patient monitoring became invaluable in tracking COVID-19 in patients as well. Wearables like thermometers and pulse oximeters allowed healthcare staff to gather data on COVID patients to assess their progress through the disease. If their condition worsened, they could get the medical attention they needed before more permanent damage occurred, which also proved to be a life-saving measure.
Just like COVID-19 influenced telehealth’s expansion, remote patient monitoring also followed suit. And just like telehealth, RPM will be here to stay long after COVID-19 as well.
Remote patient monitoring after COVID-19
As healthcare continues its transition to value-based care, there’s one goal that remains a priority: reducing the number of hospital readmissions. As hospitals work to lower these rates, they’ve looked at how the entire care continuum can be improved. This has led them to examine post-acute care and what skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care centers — where one in four patients are readmitted after 30 days and two-thirds are considered preventable — can do to lessen this strain on hospitals and patients.
This is where remote patient monitoring plays a vital role. Remote patient monitoring technologies allow a resident’s care team both at the hospital and within the SNF to work together and manage their health condition without the patient needing to leave the facility. The results have been remarkable so far. One year-long study conducted on cardiac patients saw a 30 percent decline in readmissions, which saved over $8,000 in costs per patient.
In addition to its impacts on cardiac patients and patients with other chronic health conditions, newer RPM technologies will also help support skilled nursing facilities with infection control and prevention, which we know is another leading cause of hospital readmissions. Stanford Medicine researchers launched a new effort last year to help hospitals and SNFs better monitor and manage viral infections in their patients. Their wearables, which are made by Fitbit, watch for early signs of illness by remotely tracking a resident’s heart rate and temperature. This data helps anticipate a viral infection before the patient even knows they’re sick, and allows them to get immediate treatment while also working to prevent the spread of the disease.
Telehealth and remote patient monitoring are not new to the industry, but COVID-19 showed us why they must be the future of healthcare. The healthcare industry can no longer sustain itself on being reactionary. Instead, we need to improve patient care with innovative technologies and a people-first mentality so that we can be proactive without needing to wait for another epidemic to push us in the direction we need to go.
Bent Philipson is founder of Philosophy Care, a consulting firm providing a range of services to skilled nursing facilities throughout New York and New Jersey dedicated to providing each resident with individualized care. (Twitter, LinkedIn).