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Delta, Omicron and Beyond: Trusting in Telehealth to Weather What’s Next

Before the winter holidays, infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm told CNN that the United States could expect a “viral blizzard” due to the COVID-19 Omicron variant coming on the heels of the Delta surge. That prediction has, unfortunately, proven correct. As we entered 2022, new COVID-19 cases were higher than at any previous time during the pandemic.

When Omicron hit the U.S., hospitals in many regions were still reeling from the impacts of the Delta variant. We still have much to learn about Omicron. Although preliminary research indicates that it causes less severe disease than other variants, its highly contagious nature has exacerbated the massive staffing shortages hospitals have dealt with since the Delta surge began in August 2021.

Even as our understanding of Omicron develops, we must face the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t end anytime soon. New variants will continue to emerge. On the other hand, the fast ramp-up of telemedicine triggered by the pandemic helps equip providers and health systems to mitigate future COVID-19 challenges. Moreover, this evolving care model elevates the quality of patient care in general.

Millions of providers and patients have now experienced the benefits of virtual care

Before the pandemic, limited reimbursement for telehealth made providers hesitant to adopt virtual care solutions. As the virus spread across the U.S., providers implemented virtual care as a crisis-driven solution. Public and private payors alike began encouraging and paying for virtual care visits.

Beyond reducing the spread of COVID-19, virtual care took off because it offers many practical benefits. It eliminates travel time and expenses for patients, reduces wait times, and minimizes exposure to other illnesses in waiting rooms. Virtual care boosts efficiency and saves time for providers, especially in hospital settings. When a provider can remotely access the room of a quarantined patient, they don’t need to walk all the way over from another building or take the time to gown and glove. Nursing staff can monitor more patients at the same time without having to travel room to room.

Hybrid care is enhancing outcomes for staff and patients

The rapid advances in technology spurred by the pandemic have created a hybrid model of care that elevates the experience of both patients and staff. Having a virtual care team amplifies bedside care in the hospital. During staffing shortages, hybrid care balances the ratio of patients to nursing staff, so nurses can get to patients faster and address adverse conditions sooner.

Hybrid care also enhances the care team approach. In the past, communication between the care team took place opportunistically. Now, the players in the care team can virtually get to the bedside. It’s not just the nurse, it’s also the telenurse, the therapist, the provider, the specialist. There’s more of a collaborative approach to figuring out the best care plan and the limitations of care, and collaboration is more efficient.

The hybrid model also facilitates the stratification of patients. The virtual care team can provide extra monitoring and bedside assistance to those patients with the highest acuity scores. Likewise, virtual staff can also continue to monitor low-acuity patients for progress towards transfer or discharge, freeing up the bedside care team to focus on the higher-acuity patients.

The hybrid care model also offers more options for caring for quarantined COVID-19 patients, using telenursing to monitor, alert, and intervene, in coordination with the bedside team.

The value of purpose-built virtual care solutions

During the height of the COVID-19 crisis, many hospitals adopted a “band-aid” virtual care approach. This included using tablets, smartphones, baby monitors, and consumer video conferencing platforms for virtual monitoring and visits. While these solutions helped in the short-term, they are not reliable and scalable for the long-term. They weren’t designed for 24/7, always on and available use, nor for the specific security and privacy concerns in hospital settings.

Today, more and more providers and health systems are committing to adopting purpose-built solutions that deliver much better outcomes than these short-term fixes. They understand that they need more than just a camera to bring real value to virtual care delivery.

That value is driving the need for secure, reliable platforms that facilitate all of the different care programs and clinical workflows. Capabilities such as on-demand video calling, continuous video monitoring, multiple participant sessions, and bedside clinical notifications expand virtual care options. Features such as panning and zooming of cameras, adjusting bedside speaker and microphone levels, turning on night vision, refreshing cameras, modulating bandwidth, and adding participants during a call give the remote clinician full control over the virtual care encounter.

Ultimately, telehealth technology should function seamlessly in the background, while the comprehensive platform facilitates the clinical approach. Advanced technology designed under the guidance of clinical care experts is the ideal approach to virtual care that’s easy, efficient, and reliable in any healthcare setting.

Going forward: innovation must focus on frontline staff

Leveraging virtual care to weather the storms of COVID-19 means developing modular solutions that alleviate the burden of overwhelmed emergency departments and understaffed hospitals. Telenursing, proactive monitoring, integrated data science, and offsite virtual staffing are aspects that industry leaders must develop to boost care quality and support clinicians. We owe frontline healthcare workers our deepest gratitude. We must continue to prioritize their needs and act on their input as we move forward.

Caregility’s award-winning, HIPAA-certified, interoperable platform connects patients, family members, interpreters, and clinical teams. Our clinical network partners add care delivery options and our administrative management, data, and analytics provide robust decision support for acute settings across the care continuum.

To learn more about our virtual care platform, contact us today.

This post was contributed by Pete McLain, Caregility’s Chief Strategy Officer. Pete provides leadership to our growing product and solution focus toward improved care models. He is a pioneer, innovator and leader in the field of telehealth video and communications solutions with 20 years of health care experience.

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