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By Kim Montgomery, Vice President, Healthcare Originations Leader at TIAA Bank
The advent of vaccines has provided a spark of hope during the COVID-19 pandemic and raises the prospect of more patients being able to return to hospitals and healthcare practices for routine in-person appointments. However, with so many providers having radically changed everything, from their patient booking process to their waiting room layout, what changes will stay and what will go?
In this moment where change is happening so quickly, the decisions healthcare providers make about their operations in the next 6-12 months may shape them for years to come—so no decision should be made lightly.
A change in operations
When the pandemic first arrived the U.S., healthcare facilities took a triage-like approach to sustaining their own operations, first shoring up key emergency resources such as hospital beds, ventilators, and PPE.
Beyond these emergency measures, though, facilities also made changes to their daily procedures to increase safety. These changes included everything from adjustments to office space usage such as plexiglass barriers, social-distance floor markings and distanced seating space in waiting rooms, to more substantial upgrades like improved air filtration systems and sanitization systems to provide clean working environments. Providers also made heavy investments into patient portals and telehealth solutions to provide virtual care where available.
While COVID-19 has been uniquely difficult for the healthcare sector, these changes have not been all negative. Pre-pandemic, a 2019 study by nonprofit health research institute Altarum found that Americans were traveling farther and waiting longer for healthcare when compared to other professional services. COVID-19 has certainly streamlined many of the factors that contributed to these pain points. With patients checking-in online or in-app, many can update insurance information and past health history prior to arrival, meaning they don’t have to spend time updating the information in a crowded waiting room via a clipboard. Many healthcare providers also pooled resources into an effective telehealth strategy, allowing patients to opt for virtual care for certain health visits.
While COVID-19 has deeply impacted the way healthcare providers operate their practices and empower their employees it has certainly given the industry an opportunity to strengthen its patient experience.
Will practices revert back to old operating standards after COVID-19?
While we are all hopeful that the post-COVID world will produce a “new normal” where everything is improved, there is likely to be a pendulum effect where some changes stay, and others revert to their pre-pandemic state. Projecting which changes have had the most positive impact and are most likely to stay is the essential strategic task for healthcare providers looking forward from the pandemic—and there are plenty of clues already.
Even prior to the digital surge caused by the pandemic, a 2020 report by Doctor.com found patient adoption of telemedicine practices up 33 percent when compared to 2019. Another 2020 report from research firm Arizton forecast that U.S. telehealth will grow 30 percent annually over the next five years.
It seems a safe bet that telehealth will continue to dominate the industry with improved patient experiences, lower operational costs and safer healthcare environments, even as some routine appointments return to being in-person. Furthermore, improvements to the patient experience such as allowing patients to access their records and check-in remotely are likely to remain popular. While no one loves the social distancing practices, some of these might help reduce hospital-transmitted infections even beyond COVID, so providers shouldn’t toss all of these changes out.
How can I know which changes are the most effective for my practice?
When deciding which COVID-driven changes to keep, providers should ask themselves the following three questions:
- What have we changed since the pandemic started, and what impact has it had? A thorough accounting of all the changes driven by COVID-19 is the best place to start, along with a thorough cost-benefit analysis for each. This makes it much easier for providers to decide what has actually made a difference.
- Should I reassess the changes and investments I’ve made? Many of the changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic were made quickly. Providers should evaluate them thoroughly to make sure they are solid from a technology standpoint, and further changes are not being piled on top of a bad foundation.
- Am I in the financial position to keep changing? Providers should make sure that as they are implementing changes, they are matching these expenses to their revenue as closely as possible. Implementing technology services that provide insurance-reimbursable revenue should be paid for as the revenue comes in. Healthcare providers can also consider using financing options like an equipment lease or loan to make necessary upgrades that will strengthen their balance sheets in the long run. For example, if it takes three months for patient volume to increase and another three months for insurance reimbursements to begin contributing to revenue, the payment structure of this financing option should allow for lower payments during the first six months.
As in other industries like travel and retail, patients have been ready for some time for their healthcare providers to make their lives easier through operational and digital upgrades. While in-person visits will never go away, providers owe it to themselves and their patients to evaluate and move forward with the most beneficial operational and technological changes spurred by the pandemic.
Kim Montgomery is the vice president, healthcare originations leader for TIAA Commercial Finance, Inc. She has worked in the healthcare equipment finance space for more than 20 years, developing finance solutions to facilitate implementation of healthcare technology.