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Healthcare - One Year Later

Last fall, we headed to Arizona for the CHIME Fall Forum, and didn’t know it would be among the last times CIOs and technology leaders would assemble in person. We were gathered to discuss seismic shifts in healthcare organization structures, healthcare information technology, and care delivery, and where it has enabled transformation or provoked disruption.

We didn’t know the industry would soon find itself in flux again.

While healthcare workers were busy dealing with COVID-19 patients, the back office and clinical support functions faced operational disruptions and other challenges. From supply chain shortages for personal protective equipment (PPE) to discovering how underserved populations are more at-risk than others, the pandemic has highlighted the need for health systems to adopt new business models and philosophies to be better prepared for potential outbreaks in future.

Supply shortages and warehousing

For example, despite a strategic national stockpile, many health systems experienced shortages of face masks, N95 respirators, gloves, eye protection, and other critical supplies for transmission-based precautions. Sourcing resourcefulness was put to the test from leveraging personal networks to implementing supply conservation programs for reusing equipment.

PPE production was also impacted, making it harder to procure supplies from regular manufacturers and distributors. Solutions that help with finding and aggregating fragmented sources of PPE to fulfill demand are likely to become more critical moving forward to mitigate PPE shortages.

Many hospital leaders took for granted that products manufactured overseas would always be available. Hospitals like The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center looked at their equipment inventories  and took a more critical eye toward the entire value-chain, creating a centralized warehouse for all critical inventory and prioritizing local sourcing—both distributing and manufacturing—to simplify shipping routes and ensure availability of vital equipment.

Emerging from the pandemic is the need for better processes for tracking and storing of medical equipment. Instead of an open-shelf system, we expect to see more hospitals planning for industrial space and incorporating an Amazon model for managing PPE backstock. Hospitals that leverage supply chain technology and predictive analytics can better understand what inventory they have and where it is located, track what is being used and where, and identify real-time usage patterns for more accurate forecasting. Efficient inventory management and centralized distribution will help to reduce inventory, streamline how supply chain staff picks up supplies, and improve hospital cash flow.

The health of the work-at-home future

The sudden move to remote work also tested the healthcare industry, giving leaders pause to think about the health of their work-at-home future. Gallop notes that the number of remote workers doubled within a span of three weeks. While many healthcare workers never left the hospital, others were sent to work from home and may not be coming back.

The need to assess technological preparedness was another lesson learned from the pandemic. Virtual private networks (VPNs), cloud computing, and video conferencing tools help employees work effectively, however networks were stressed and many had to navigate internet connectivity issues. In addition to efficiency, there’s an emotional well-being aspect that also needs addressing. Video, Zoom, Teams, and Google Hangouts all served a role in keeping teams connected.

While remote work has its benefits, it also brings privacy and security challenges. Employee family members might be able to view or access a patient's personal health information in a way that they would not be able to if the employee was working on-site. Phishing attempts are also on the rise, and with employees using their own devices, malware attacks may also increase. Privacy and security measures need to be implemented to address the risks of maintaining HIPAA compliance in a remote environment and other cybersecurity concerns.

Digital health and telehealth have taken a front seat in the current outbreak, reemphasizing the importance of remote diagnosis, consultation, and treatment. Social distancing measures have mandated patients with mild symptoms opt for remote consultation and to lessen the burden on hospitals already swamped with COVID-19 patients. With resource constraints already an issue, it’s likely to lead to development of alternate pricing models and value-based pricing.

The coronavirus pandemic is unparalleled but will likely lead to lasting change. What has your hospital done differently to respond to the pandemic and prepare for future outbreaks? Use this time to determine if you have the right tools to facilitate what could be the new normal for work in healthcare.