In the face of COVID-19, healthcare witnessed how crises can become the long-awaited push for creativity and innovation that the industry needs. When our healthcare infrastructure’s weaknesses were exposed, telehealth helped to stitch them up, with the number of telehealth claims increasing 8,336% nationally from April 2019 to April 2020. Out of need, patients quickly turned to telehealth as a new model of care delivery; clinicians adapted to a new avenue for engaging with patients, policymakers began to improve incentives for its use; and home became our hospital.
As we continue the fight to control the virus in 2021, the industry is at a pivotal moment in ensuring this year’s telehealth momentum continues post-pandemic. Healthcare organizations should take time now to strategize how best to hardwire telehealth, so it is embedded into care delivery models long-term. In order to achieve this, leaders need to consider their collaboration with other stakeholders, longitudinal integration strategies that go beyond piecemeal solutions and transform the perception of what “home” means in healthcare to meet consumers where they are.
Step 1: Collaborate to advance technology
If we’ve learned anything from healthcare’s digitization over the years, it’s that technology for technology’s sake is not enough – solving healthcare’s issues is a systems problem, not a disease problem. For telehealth to last, there needs to be a clinical transformation where workflows are rewritten, policies strongly incentivize its use and companies and hospitals partner on outcome-based models that support its scalability.
In the last six months, we have seen more innovation and adoption in healthcare than we’ve seen in the last decade, with typical innovation timelines of years becoming weeks or days. In many ways, this creativity and open innovation saved the U.S. healthcare system from collapsing and helped us survive the initial surge. We also saw the collaboration of all sorts reach new heights, with organizations, federal agencies, private and public companies from different industries coming together to manage surge capacity while maintaining quality care. Another benefit of these partnerships is the emphasis on long-term policy changes that will empower lasting change and adoption of these innovative approaches. Industry efforts, like ours with the ATA, aim to promote telehealth’s growth and support hospitals, payers, and patients across care settings. The pandemic’s productive collaboration cannot stop here. Instead, we should continue to bring dimensions of policy, clinical experience, and consumer voices to imbed telehealth into our everyday systems.
Step 2: Determine avenues for seamless data integration across settings
Telehealth’s power is not in its technical claims, but in the power of presenting caregivers with actionable, meaningful patient data so they can make data-driven care decisions with confidence. This is only made possible with interoperable, cloud-based solutions that collect, digest, and analyze data to inform care. With constant transfer of key patient data through connected devices, such as hospital-grade wearables and biosensors, and translating the data into useable insights, remote patient monitoring empowers care teams with the knowledge needed to intervene earlier and keep patients healthy at home.
Telehealth’s power expands beyond the home, supporting a continuum of care no matter what setting a patient is in. Remote monitoring within the hospital is the crux of minimizing infection risk, handling sudden increases in patient volumes and allocating resources appropriately. These include solutions such as centralized clinical command centers to achieve remote, holistic patient views, or technology that activates scalable patient monitoring for ICU ramp-ups. The solutions we deploy need to be enablers of seamless data transfer – from the ED to ICU, to post-acute and home setting. We now must ensure our informatics backbones mature with these solutions, eliminating gaps in care while ensuring a secure flow of data where and when it’s needed. Deploying cloud-based platforms that bring together the right information across the care continuum will make for a powerful, integrated system that enhances patient and staff safety improves outcomes, and reduces costs.
Step 3: Transforming what “home” means in healthcare
2020 has transformed how we view “home.” Home has become the center of life operations for people across the globe – we work from home, we educate our children at home and we exercise at home. Healthcare is now becoming another cornerstone of the home. With a growing volume of telehealth offerings and household names providing care services, consumer behavior is changing to expect customization, convenience, and instant gratification. The consumer’s voice is loud, and tomorrow’s healthcare will move it from a whisper to a shout – We must be prepared to deliver care when and where patients want to receive it, increasingly let go of healthcare’s brick-and-mortar blueprint, and enable healthcare to match the ease and convenience of other areas of a patient’s life.
However, just like all these other ‘at-home’ activities that require getting used to or training, we need to support health literacy and engagement for all users. The pandemic has made the inequalities in our health system raw. Even before the pandemic, 5% of the patients account for about half of U.S. healthcare spending. This is a sign that they are not receiving the proactive care and support they need. We have an opportunity to change this equation with virtual care and bridge the digital divide by tailoring solutions to meet each patient’s needs and ensuring equitable availability to all patients.
Transforming telehealth into a standard of care
Technology isn’t the answer to telehealth’s success alone – it is virtualizing care where it is needed most and ensuring it is fully integrated across an institution. Healthcare organizations should reflect on where their greatest challenges and populations are, and look for systematic solutions for telehealth so that virtualization can scale efficiently and build from existing technology and workflows. With productive collaboration across sectors, robust data integration infrastructures, and an evolved perception of how we view healthcare, these tools have the power to influence how patients view and engage with their health, pushing the industry toward more proactive care that will have long-term benefits on outcomes and cost.
About Karsten Russell-Wood
Karsten Russell-Wood, MBA, MPH is the Portfolio Leader for Post-Acute and Home at Philips where he is responsible for Innovation and cross-business platform strategy and portfolio optimization. Prior to joining Philips, Karsten held global product management roles within GE’s healthcare businesses with an orientation to targeted patient populations and continues to be active in venture capital and startups in the digital health space.