Digitalizing Operational Coordination in Healthcare: Using Data and Technology during the Pandemic

A couple of months ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article highlighting four steps to digitalize healthcare. The article was sponsored by Siemens to promote its “Insights Series”, its “thought leadership platform”, and its latest whitepaper - “This changes everything: The COVID-19 pandemic leads to a significant acceleration of digitalization in healthcare”.

Siemens' whitepaper is everything you would expect from a publication of this nature – a future vision of a healthcare system that manages data as a strategic asset in order to empower data-driven decisions, connect care teams and patients, and build a learning health system. The whitepaper claims the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift towards digitalization; but warns that, for the acceleration to continue, a change in culture is required.

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Although the whitepaper includes helpful insights, there are a couple areas where it could be missing the mark. The concept of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make data-driven decisions has been around since the 1970s, while the connection of care teams and patients has been an ongoing process since the HIPAA Act in 1996. Furthermore, while there has been an increase in the use of telemedicine during the pandemic, any previous shift towards digitalization was incentivized by HITECH and the Meaningful Use program rather than attributable to a change in culture.

The Cultural Issues with Accelerating the Digitalization of Healthcare

In 2014, Forbes published an article written by Robert Pearl – a keynote speaker at that year's Stanford Medicine X conference. The article provides five reasons why, despite the incentives of the Meaningful Use program and subsequent Promoting Interoperability program, healthcare organizations are slow to adopt technology in healthcare. The five reasons are:

  • Software developers create a “nifty technology” and then find ways it can be used in healthcare rather than developing solutions that can address an existing problem.
  • Once software is adopted by healthcare organizations, it is difficult to monetize (something which is changing under the Promoting Interoperability program).
  • Physicians are reluctant to share medical information with patients because (according to the physician author) patients could be more worried than they need be.
  • Again, according to the author, physicians are reluctant to adopt technology because the structured format of data entry is slower than maintaining paper records.
  • Finally, many physicians consider technology to be impersonal – for example when a physician has to break the news to a patient that he or she has been diagnosed with cancer.

More recently, the Physician-Patient Alliance for Health & Safety published an article explaining the industry's reluctance to adopt technology from a legal viewpoint. The author states that the “medical standard of care” (the standard on which medical malpractice lawsuits are determined) is defined as the standard of care that a reasonably skilled and competent medical professional would have provided to a patient at the time and in the circumstances.

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The article makes the point that, if a physician was to use a new technology in the treatment of a patient, and the patient's condition subsequently deteriorated, the physician's use of a new technology would deviate from the accepted medical standard of care - thus increasing the chances that the physician would be found guilty of malpractice. The article concludes by asking “how does a standard evolve if it is based on what everyone has done in the past?”

So, What Did Change during the Pandemic?

What actually changed during the pandemic is difficult to quantify. While some healthcare leaders suggest the adoption of telehealth and other (undefined) digital health technologies has created a path towards an integrated healthcare delivery model in which healthcare becomes a “team sport”, some people are forgetting the pandemic is still raging and that front-line healthcare professionals will still be fighting fires for years to come with little time to think about becoming team players.

The pandemic is not the only critical issue the healthcare industry will encounter over the next few years. In addition to the long-term effects of the virus, research conducted in June found that 4-in-10 U.S. adults avoided seeking medical care due to concerns about catching the virus. Research suggests the avoidance of - or non-availability of – face-to-face medical care during the pandemic will exacerbate the severity of untreated noncommunicable diseases for at least five years.

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Therefore, the increased adoption of telehealth could be a backwards step in the journey towards the digitalization of healthcare. Whereas it has uses in protecting patients and healthcare professionals from the risk of infection, the consequences of using telehealth as a foundation for an AI-based learning health system - when so many people will be in the advanced stages of treatable diseases – is going to result in future data-driven decisions being made on flawed data.

The Cost of Getting Digitalization Wrong

The cost of rushing the digitalization of healthcare and getting it wrong could be devastating – not only for future visions of healthcare systems, but for the economy as a whole. Even before the COVID pandemic, healthcare expenditure in the U.S. was increasing at 5.4% per year and forecast to reach $6.2 trillion – or 20% of GDP - by 2028. It has since been forecast that, for each one million COVID-19 patients, the U.S. health system incurs $5.3 billion in direct costs.

costOnce the pandemic is contained, it is expected that healthcare payers will try to contain healthcare spending. One of the ways in which this will likely be attempted is to focus on value-based care models in which healthcare organizations are incentivized by low readmission rates. This is not likely to be a successful approach in the short-term due to the critical issues mentioned above and also a substantially increased demand for mental health services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, if healthcare organizations attempt to accelerate the digitalization of healthcare in the midst of these consequences in order to make healthcare systems more efficient and reduce costs, it could backfire and result in a deterioration of healthcare services at a greatly increased costs. It may be better to take the foot off the gas and allow some of the cultural, legal, and accuracy issues to be addressed so that the digitalization of healthcare is built on a more solid foundation.

Measures Healthcare Organizations Can Take Now

While it may not be advisable to rush into future visions of the healthcare system, there are some measures healthcare organizations can take now to digitalize operational coordination. These include implementing collaboration platforms to streamline operations, automate key communications, assign critical tasks, and respond to planned and unplanned disturbances with event-specific resources.

Related Blog: What is Tactical Incident Collaboration?

During the next few years, healthcare organizations are going to have to more with less, making it harder to enforce compliance policies, mitigate operational disruptions, and manage crisis events. Find out how a collaboration platform can help reduce the pressure on managing a post-COVID healthcare environment. Click below. 

Universal - Rave Collaborate Demo

Tara Gibson
Tara Gibson

Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12, State & Local, Higher Ed, Corporate, and Healthcare, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!

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