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 Health Technology Supercharges During COVID-19

Steps forward in telemedicine and interoperability are helping providers build a new foundation for providing care.

 

These are dark days indeed. But if one has learned anything from history, it is that humankind has shown itself to be adaptable, again and again, making the best of even the worst situations. When things are at their most egregious, that is when individuals tend to be the most resilient and resourceful.

Consider, for example, the Black Death, which led to the demise of the feudal system and the rise of medical practices based on science. Or consider the Spanish flu outbreak, which resulted in increased opportunities for women in the workforce.

Light in the Darkness

As bleak as things are, it would not be the least bit surprising if the coronavirus pandemic sparked similar advancements. Make no mistake about it—the outbreak has been a calamity of monumental proportions. World Health Organization statistics show that over 11.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported around the world through July 6, and that more than 537,000 deaths had come as a result of the virus. About 38 percent of the cases (nearly 4.4 million) and above 41 percent of the deaths (topping 220,000) had occurred in the United States.

Any favorable development must be framed against that backdrop; that is abundantly clear. At the same time, the health care industry has been a beacon of light—thanks to not only the bravery of countless health care heroes, but to the rapid adoption of technology to curtail the tragedy as much as possible.

Before the spread of COVID-19, health care tech adoption came in fits and starts, often due to a lack of vision, an aversion to risk, or financial hurdles. A recent survey from the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) and Avia Health Innovation (AVIA) indicated that 54 percent of hospitals earmark less than $500,000 to innovation each year, while just 11 percent devote over $5 million annually to such upgrades.

Fast Track to Solutions

But the crisis has forced those in the long term and post-acute care sectors to fast-track technological solutions as never before to protect the health and safety of both staff and patients.

One study noted that the health care information technology industry alone is expected to balloon from $227.5 billion in 2020 to $270.3 billion in 2021, a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 23.6 percent, and that the rise is largely due to the outbreak.

Meanwhile, authors for McKinsey Digital estimate that “we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks.”

This level of technological adoption has been instrumental in improving care, protecting the health of staff and patients, and saving lives. But by investing in technology now, health care companies are installing the infrastructure needed to save lives—not just during the pandemic, but after it, too.

Consider, for example, a remote contact-free patient monitoring system known as EarlySense. It makes use of sensors placed under mattresses or cushions to track patients’ vital signs and movements. A Harvard University Medical School study of 7,643 patients showed that the technology resulted in an 86 percent reduction in Code Blue events, a 45 percent reduction in ICU stays for those transferring from the surgery unit, and a 9 percent reduction in the overall length of stay.

Though the system was already used in some facilities, including those providing post-acute care, EarlySense took on added importance when the pandemic hit, as it allowed staff to closely monitor patients’ respiration rate.

“We know COVID-19 patients can really be on a mild course with the disease, and then very sharply decline,” said Eyal Zimlichman, chief medical officer and chief innovation officer of Israel’s Sheba Medical Center. “It was critical for us to be able to monitor them and be able to understand a few hours in advance when a patient is about to deteriorate.”

The business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan has predicted that there will be a trend away from wearable technology to noncontact sensors like EarlySense, thanks to their affordability and superior level of tracking.

Telehealth Rising

Monitoring systems are just the tip of the iceberg. Frost & Sullivan also predicts that telehealth growth will balloon seven-fold by 2025 in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Spurred on by social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, in-person doctor visits declined by 60 percent between March 8 and March 29. Telehealth usage increased by 14 percent in a similar time period. 

While telemedicine platforms have been particularly useful during the pandemic to protect the elderly and immunocompromised, the benefits don’t stop there. The New York Times reported that telemedicine visits can “result in faster diagnoses and treatments, increase the efficiency of care, and reduce patient stress.” Moreover, it allows for greater care coordination when patients reach the post-acute phase; hospitals can maintain the sort of oversight that simply wasn’t possible before such platforms were available.

EHR Adoption Catches Fire

In certain areas of the country, the spike was far more dramatic. Dave Fuhrmann, senior vice president for research and development at Wisconsin-based Epic Systems, a leader in the field of electronic health records (EHRs), reported a 3,000 percent increase in video visits from February to March, and added that patients’ self-management—tracking symptoms, temperatures, etc.—had likewise climbed.

EHRs have also taken on added importance during the pandemic. They are by no means a new development; their use in long term care facilities, for instance, has been shown to improve outcomes and reduce errors. But virus tracking may prove a turning point in the widespread adoption of EHRs.

Two-thirds of primary care physicians agree that EHR leads to improved care, but a full 70 percent agree that better interoperability remains the top priority. A look at the data makes it clear why that’s the case: When researchers surveyed physicians, they found that only 12 percent were able to use their EHRs to digitally transmit patient care summaries across multiple care settings. To make matters more complicated, only 6 percent could share patient data with clinicians using different EHR platforms.

The interoperability problem is one to which COVID-19 may be forcing a solution. 

The Nebraska Health Information Initiative (NEHII), for example, recently developed a COVID-19 dashboard that consolidates data from across the state to give officials an understanding of COVID-19 surges and hotspots. Meanwhile, the Regenstrief Institute in Indiana developed an EHR dashboard that supplements data already compiled by the state and allows patients to be tracked as they undergo care.
This level of data connectivity helps facilities monitor patient recoveries and enact effective prevention efforts, and experts predict it will also prove critical to improving patient care in the future.

There’s no doubt that these silver linings dim in comparison to the COVID-19 storm, but they still matter. Indeed, every tiny step forward into telemedicine and interoperability makes a difference. They will ultimately allow providers to build a foundation that will outlast the pandemic and lead to incredible care advancements in the future.
 
Joel Landau is founder and chairman of The Allure Group, a network of six New York City-based skilled nursing facilities. He has served as a member or an advisor on a number of boards and committees, including the Medicaid Managed Care Advisory Review Panel (MCCARP), NYS DOH Preventative Health and Health Services Block Grant, NYS DOH Task Force on Long Term Care Financing, and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
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