By Coverys Risk Management 
 
The World Health Organization has called the coronavirus (COVID-19) the defining global health crisis of our time. For hospital providers, this is particularly true. As the first COVID-19 patient cases were reported in the U.S., there were still many holes in the scientific community’s knowledge. Healthcare professionals had to wait for updates and adapt on the fly, often without the necessary resources.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 exposed many shortcomings, but there are also reasons for optimism. The pandemic has inspired many to rethink strategies, technologies, and risk management practices. By doing so, the healthcare industry can emerge stronger, improving the environment for patients and providers.

Here are six areas where positive shifts are already underway:

Shift #1: Rethinking Crisis Response

The Challenge:
During the pandemic, many organizations were so overwhelmed that they stopped or delayed routine health screenings and elective procedures so they could refocus talent, resources, and supplies toward the treatment of COVID patients.

As a result, many preventative health screenings were not performed during the pandemic, increasing the risk of missed and delayed diagnoses. According to the Physicians Foundation 2020 Survey, 72% of physicians expect delayed care during the pandemic to result in serious consequences for patient health.

The Opportunity:
It’s only matter of time before another emergency strikes. Lessons learned from the pandemic can help organizations prepare by rethinking crisis response strategies. Healthcare leaders now know that they must be vigilant to ensure their organizations can quickly pivot with labor, supply, and equipment readiness. They must also take a proactive stance so they are able to respond to emergencies while continuing to deliver routine healthcare services in tandem.

Shift #2: Fine-Tuning Telemedicine

The Challenge:
To accommodate patients and control virus spread, many organizations rapidly rolled out telemedicine programs during the pandemic – without the usual checks and balances.

The Opportunity:
A McKinsey & Company study found that in April 2020, telehealth utilization was 78 times higher than pre-pandemic levels, and in February 2021, telehealth utilization had stabilized at 38 times higher than pre-pandemic levels. The same study found that 40% of consumers plan to continue using telemedicine going forward.

Telemedicine has now become a norm, offering many potential benefits including convenience, cost savings, and access to care and infection containment; however, there is opportunity for improvement.

Going forward, healthcare organizations should develop standard guidelines, training, patient education, documentation, and risk management protocols for all specialties. Better systems and more attention to privacy and security need to be prioritized.

Learn more by reading Liability and Opportunity in the Telemedicine Boom.

Shift #3: Breaking Down Barriers to Care

The Challenge:
COVID-19 has been an inflection point. The data is clear: Racial and ethnic minorities and other vulnerable populations have been disproportionately impacted by COVID.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that compared to white, non-Hispanic individuals, American Indian or Alaska Natives have 3.2 times as many hospitalizations and 2.2 times as many deaths. Likewise, Black and African American people have 2.5 times as many hospitalizations and 1.7 times as many deaths, while Hispanic or Latino people have 2.4 times as many hospitalizations and 1.9 times as many deaths.

Barriers to care include a variety of factors including language, finances, transportation, education, and even access to an internet connection.

The Opportunity:
The industry now has a better understanding of barriers that prevent vulnerable populations from receiving care – as detailed in this Coverys article, Shattering Healthcare Barriers for Vulnerable Patient Populations.

Healthcare organizations can emerge from this period of turmoil and disruption to create true innovation and progress to make care more accessible to all. Addressing racial disparities has been integrated into new models for value-based care.

Shift #4: Using AI and ML to Move Toward Value-Based Care

The Challenge:
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) were used during the pandemic to predict the risk of becoming infected during a time when reliable data was hard to access.

The Opportunity:
AI and ML are finally gaining momentum in healthcare. In fact, according to PwC, the AI transformation is already underway. The current applications include improving early detection of diseases. For example, an article in Wired shows how AI can reduce the need for unnecessary biopsies by reviewing mammograms 30 times faster and with 99% accuracy. Other applications of AI include encouraging healthier behavior, supporting decision-making, and helping providers take a more comprehensive approach to disease management.

These benefits may be especially important as the healthcare industry shifts to value-based care models. Value-based care is an alternative to fee-for-service models that focuses on outcomes rather than services. According to RevCycleIntelligence, CMS is working to connect all Medicare payments to value-based care models. By using data to improve efficiency and outcomes, AI and ML can also help with the successful implementation of value-based care models.

Shift #5: Preventing Hospital-Acquired Infections

The Challenge:
Hospital-acquired infections are not new. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that approximately 1 in 25 U.S. hospital patients is diagnosed with an infection related to hospital care each year. The CDC also says that full adherence to CDC guidelines can prevent 70% of central line-associated blood stream infections (CLABSI) in some hospitals. However, high infection rates have continued, potentially suggesting that full adherence may not be taking place.

The Opportunity:
During the pandemic, the increased threat and awareness of infection prompted healthcare facilities to comply with stricter protocols designed to reduce infection. If adherence to these protocols continues, the benefits may be long-lasting.

Shift #6: Reducing Provider Burnout

The Challenge:
Even before COVID-19, physician burnout was an issue – although it was not always acknowledged or discussed. Now, it’s an undeniable crisis. Consider these facts:
  • According to the Physicians Foundation's 2020 Survey, 8% of U.S. physicians closed their practices because of the pandemic, and 43% have reduced staff.
  • A 2020 survey from the Medical Group Management Association found that 97% of medical practices have been financially harmed by the pandemic.
  • The Physicians Foundation’s 2021 Survey of U.S. physicians found that 61% of physicians report often experiencing feelings of burnout, and 46% would not recommend medicine as a career option to young people.
  • According to the American Nurses Foundation, 42% of nurses say they have had an extremely stressful, disturbing, or traumatic experience due to COVID. Among nurses who say they want to quit in the next six months, 48% cite their work’s negative impact on their health and well-being as the top reason, and 41% cite insufficient staffing as the top reason.
The Opportunity:
Many organizations are taking steps to improve mental health support for healthcare workers. Changes made today may create improved resources and resiliency for physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers in the future.

For ideas and potential solutions, read Moving Through Healthcare Burnout With Emotional and Personal Resiliency.

Looking Forward

The healthcare landscape has been forever changed by COVID-19. The impact was unprecedented, and it’s clear that many of the shifts sparked by the pandemic will have long-term effects. However, these effects are not necessarily negative. Although the pandemic highlighted several key challenges, it also prompted positive change and reflection.

By analyzing and sharing lessons learned, the healthcare industry can understand its vulnerabilities and mitigate potential exposures. The steps taken today will determine which organizations thrive tomorrow.

This article was, in part, based on the Coverys presentation “A Changing World: How the Pandemic Has Shifted Healthcare,” presented by Robert Hanscom, JD, VP, Risk Management and Analytics.

Copyrighted. No legal or medical advice intended. This post includes general risk management guidelines. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal or medical developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal or medical advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances.