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How COVID-19 is Changing Everything in Healthcare

The following op-ed column by Mike Brandofino, President and COO of Caregility, was originally published in the Sunday, May 3, 2020, print edition of the Asbury Park Press.

We were sure that telehealth and virtual care eventually would become permanent fixtures in U.S. healthcare. But never did we envision a situation like COVID-19 that would catapult its widespread use in less than a month from the start of the pandemic.

Right now, healthcare organizations across the country are using telehealth to engage and assess patients while stemming the spread of the coronavirus. Hospitals are turning to remote patient observation to limit direct exposure, reduce the need for scarce personal protective equipment (PPE) and keep healthcare workers safe. Virtual care is one of the few levers available to practices and clinicians trying to maintain some semblance of care delivery during the COVID-19 response.

Early in the crisis, our clinical team explained to me what would transpire over the coming weeks. It was hard to believe. But they were right. Nurses and doctors would work round-the-clock shifts. Dwindling supplies and high risks of exposure would threaten the effectiveness and safety of the system.

Hospitals can no longer wait weeks or months to have telehealth solutions installed. They need cameras and virtual access in whatever form they can get them—on rolling carts, mounted to walls or through web-equipped devices—as quickly as possible.

Telehealth call volumes have skyrocketed during the pandemic as clinicians try to keep up. We’ve seen hospitals go live on a Monday and perform more than 7,500 remote patient video visits daily in their first week of using telehealth. We’ve also seen scenarios play out that have struck a deep emotional chord. In some heartbreaking cases, telehealth has been the only link between dying patients and their loved ones. Other scenarios offer a silver lining, such as connecting parents with their babies in neonatal intensive care units and allowing isolated patients to comfort hospitalized family members amid visitation restrictions.

Ultimately, this crisis has made virtual care a permanent fixture of healthcare. Just like after 9/11 when New Yorkers turned to virtual collaboration to carry on, U.S. and global health systems will come to rely on telehealth. This crisis has accelerated legislative efforts to broaden uses and reimbursements for telehealth services, as observed with the CARES Act. We have seen validations of telehealth under the most extreme tests. It’s fair to say that healthcare will never be the same.

Hospitals and clinics are planning expanded telehealth use as they brace for the threat of a new variant of the coronavirus. For the months ahead, social distancing measures will hold, only waning with time. This has brought the need for broader behavioral telehealth solutions as we face the emotional and psychological impact on citizens as well as exhausted healthcare workers.

As we work to rekindle our economy, telehealth is playing a vital role in back-to-work and back-to-school health screenings. Demand for remote guidance from clinicians is rising as at-home diagnostic and antibody testing for COVID-19 is now part of the consumer market. Telehealth may well be the proverbial bridge back to the “home visit,” as technology platforms and an array of connected devices become permanent fixtures in our homes as well as healthcare facilities.

What happens next? Almost certainly, it will be a domino effect changing standards and regulations for reimbursement, patient data, privacy, security and more. More important than ever will be the effective application of technology to make better use of suddenly limited resources. Our health system will be in economic recovery. As a result, an even greater onus is on those of us within the healthcare technology community to support patient care with innovations that help caregivers do more with less.

Two years into the pandemic

This update to the original post was published on February 17, 2022.

We have now been in the pandemic for two years, and telehealth use has ebbed and flowed with each surge. Millions have experienced its benefits. Providers are investing in long-term virtual care solutions that are purpose-built and HIPAA compliant, while hybrid care is emerging to enhance the patient experience. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is also bringing forward exciting new opportunities. Overall, innovations are being made to streamline and help staff who have been quitting in droves and who need support more than ever before.

Through the pandemic, telehealth has emerged as a household word, with patients and providers readily turning to virtual care. At the same time, healthcare providers and hospital systems are coming to rely on a hybrid delivery system of in-person and patient-centric virtual care.

All hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages due to the pandemic, and the staff on hand are experiencing burnout. Healthcare executives and their IT departments have discovered that telehealth can bridge the gap in filling care needs, lending a hand to nurses and doctors, and comforting patients, who are also feeling the impact of the pandemic on the short supply of staffing.

With back-up provided by tele-nursing and tele-sitting, nurses can focus care on the patients in most critical need of in-person care. On an already strained staff, the added emotional relief from having telehealth provide back-up is incalculable.

Right now, hospitals are overflowing with COVID-19 patients due to the Omicron surge, and many of them have been forced to expand COVID units into makeshift locations throughout the hospital. Secure virtual observation provided through telehealth is critical for providing rapid response for these COVID patients. Virtual observation technology has become an important way of combating the environmental challenges of patients who must be isolated. Telehealth has also helped to reduce the need for PPE utilization and risk of exposure for staff.

Telehealth and remote patient monitoring are being used to follow patients in post-acute care, ensuring they won’t need to return to the hospital and compete for a bed that might not be there as the pandemic rages on.

Telehealth is also assisting in providing the best care for patients with long COVID, monitoring their conditions and providing them with interaction with nurses and doctors to help manage symptoms in the best way possible.

Because of the many ways that telehealth has aided in patient-centric high-quality care during the pandemic—in addition to the comfort it has provided both patients and staff—many experts expect telehealth use to become even more routine as time goes on.

Moving forward, we must keep thinking about the lessons we have learned over these past two years. What can we do to be better prepared for the next epidemic? What is going to help us get through the emergence of yet another variant?

Let’s start by offering our deepest gratitude to our healthcare providers.

We must listen carefully to their guidance about how to reshape the system. We owe these caregivers and their patients, much support and attention as we look for new ways to improve care delivery during COVID-19 and beyond.

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