Turning Lemons into Lemonade: How COVID-19 Disruptions Pave the Way for Healthcare Innovation

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Medical worker in protective masks and gloves removes a dose of AstraZeneca Covishield coronavirus vaccine from a vial at a hospital

By Ben Sawyer, MBA, PT, OCS, LBB, Vice President of Market Development, ABOUT

COVID-19 has battered the U.S. healthcare system, creating a series of care access issues that still haven’t been fully resolved. At the height of the pandemic, some patients were turned away from hospitals and doctors’ offices due to the influx of patients infected with the virus. Others simply kept their distance for fear of contracting COVID at these medical facilities. Even now, in a post-vaccine world, people still are not using healthcare services at the same rate they were prior to the pandemic, and these figures may never return to pre-pandemic levels. According to recent data from The Health Management Academy, 24% of healthcare leaders surveyed predict inpatient and surgery admissions will be permanently lower in the post-pandemic era, 22% say ER visits will be lower, 18% say the same for outpatient surgery, and 10% believe outpatient visits will also decline. 

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In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for consumerism in healthcare. Telehealth and other digital engagement technologies not only became a means to an end but awakened patients to new ways to interact with their healthcare providers and altered their care experience expectations. Patients will undoubtedly utilize healthcare services again, but many will only do so on their own terms – meaning they want to control when, how, and where they access care. The way health systems respond to this sea change will dictate their long-term viability. Fortunately, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has also created an environment amenable to unprecedented innovation and change. To that end, this article outlines several considerations that can help health systems turn pandemic-related challenges into opportunities to achieve peak performance. 

Operate as one system of care

Achieving “systemness” and operating as one network of care is one objective that has been made even more challenging during the pandemic. Issues that contribute to workforce disruptions include the retirement of many experienced clinical leaders during the pandemic, supply chain challenges, and the fragmentation of processes and technology support systems – just to name a few. In fact, one participant in a recent Baldrige Foundation Leader Dialogue Program CEO Innovation Council Roundtable said his facility experienced a 75% turnover in its leadership team and had a staff vacancy rate of over 25% during COVID, which had a devastating impact on the culture of the organization. 

Many healthcare leaders view today’s labor market as unsustainable. There is also broad consensus that, in the wake of COVID, the workforce of the future will not look like the workforce of the past. To evolve accordingly, health systems should place a renewed focus on:

  • Building career pathways that go beyond traditional career ladders and enable people to practice at the top of their licenses;
  • Investing in cultivating great managers and helping them develop the skill sets to effectively function in this new environment;
  • Shifting the growing negative sentiment about working in healthcare into a positive outlook that supports recruitment and retention efforts going forward; and
  • Eliminating administrative burdens and the workload of manual processes via the use of technology and care model innovations.

To create true systemness, health systems must also address the issues that currently impede effective care coordination across multiple care settings such as siloed operations, insulated departmental processes, and disparate and fragmented data sources. This effort will require transformation across three key areas:

  1. Adoption of tools and best practices to drive referral demand and to enhance provider loyalty;
  2. Optimization of resource capacity by driving pervasive situational awareness across the enterprise; and
  3. Coordinated hand-offs across the various care settings to accelerate patient throughput to drive better performance results.

Achieve real-time situational awareness

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that many health systems lacked the flexibility to effectively adapt to profound disruption. The implementation of a real-time health system (RTHS) vision and maturity model can help health systems better address future scenarios where priorities and business models continually shift. The RTHS represents the transformation of the health system into an efficient, consumer- and patient-friendly enterprise that will create innovative care options and an improved healthcare experience. Establishing an RTHS framework requires:

  1. Creating a compelling and practical vision and strategy to transform care delivery operational workflows while managing persistent revenue demands and harsh cost-optimization realities;
  2. Leveraging real-time patient event data, operational intelligence, and predictive analytics to transform workflows and business processes to create value; and 
  3. Optimizing the utilization of enterprise resources to reduce waste, latency, and costs – redirecting human resources to high-value business opportunities.

Reinforce your digital front door

The pandemic stoked consumer enthusiasm for digital engagement alternatives in healthcare, prompting many health systems to reexamine their digital front door. As health systems continue to adopt virtual care across clinical service lines, it is essential that patients have a positive experience regardless of when, how, and where they engage. The digital front door enables patients to digitally connect with their providers and health information and allows the provider to deliver a consistent, contextual, and personalized clinical experience. Objectives of an effective digital front door include:

  • Enhancing the consumer and patient experience by empowering them to be in control of their healthcare journey including accessing care when, how, and where they want it; and
  • Enabling personalized consumer and patient experiences and interactions that guide them effectively through their healthcare journey across both physical and digital touchpoints.

Load-balance demand and capacity

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the expansion of care delivery outside of traditional settings, making enterprise resource orchestration capabilities more important than ever. Some healthcare leaders think as much as 85% of healthcare could be delivered outside the hospital in the future. Going forward, health systems will need to know, in real-time, what resources they have available – people, beds, services, procedures, diagnostic tests, etc. – across the enterprise to accommodate the requests for services from patients, physicians, and others seeking to gain admission via the range of access portals. Matching supply to demand across the health system is the definition of enterprise care orchestration and a cornerstone capability of the real-time health system of the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a defining moment in the history of healthcare. It demonstrated the resilience of our healthcare system but also revealed some glaring weaknesses. As much as we would hope to never encounter an outbreak of this magnitude again, the unfortunate truth is we will, possibly within our lifetimes. To that end, we must ensure that COVID-19 provides more than just a learning experience but also serves as a launchpad that drives our industry to make the appropriate system, process, and technology upgrades necessary to ensure our health systems are better equipped to respond to the next pandemic.

Healthcare Business Today is a leading online publication that covers the business of healthcare. Our stories are written from those who are entrenched in this field and helping to shape the future of this industry. Healthcare Business Today offers readers access to fresh developments in health, medicine, science, and technology as well as the latest in patient news, with an emphasis on how these developments affect our lives.