The impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare sector has spurred massive structural and operational changes – from building new healthcare centres dedicated to treating those with the virus to maintaining some level of continuity for regular patients through new technology practices.
As quarantine measures begin to lift and more governments announce their plans to reopen, the focus is shifting to how we can now adapt to the “new normal” we find ourselves in. For the healthcare sector, this means examining how best to deliver healthcare services in the future as well as which of the many rapidly adopted changes implemented to tackle the pandemic, should remain. A handful of these have driven the effective delivery of healthcare, having been enabled by two things - the influence of technology and a broader, yet much needed cultural change.
Telehealth is here to stay
Although the healthcare sector has used free tools like FaceTime to virtually speak to patients for quite some time, these practices were not broadly adopted until recently. During COVID-19, virtual appointments have become an absolute necessity and have accelerated a widespread acceptance of virtual health services.
As infections reached pandemic levels, the healthcare sector needed to quickly adapt, not only to help reduce the rate of infections but also to allow doctors and patients access to healthcare. Telehealth has offered a workable and safe alternative in this regard, especially for patients with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, HIV or depression.
The shift to remote health services is likely to become the norm as we move forward. Not only has it aided in curtailing the pandemic, but also eliminated many of the traditional hurdles that have prevented patients from being able to see a doctor, such as transportation, family care or simply scheduling issues.
Yet, for telehealth to reach its full potential – namely, enabling devices to provide the diagnostic information that guides clinical care – further steps are needed to be taken. For example, to provide such information to healthcare providers, more work is needed to create secure networks that extend to a patient’s home so that Protected Health Information (PHI) privacy can be maintained.
With the nationwide lockdown gradually easing and being replaced with local restrictions, the sector, like so many others, must now look at how best to implement social distancing guidelines for its office-based teams. To effectively achieve this, adjustments to office spaces and the continued adoption of remote work must be considered. If remote working for office-based non-clinical staff is continued and diligently adopted more widely, it will provide healthcare organisations with several benefits. These benefits might include making use of unused office space and converting it for clinical areas and overflow, as well as giving healthcare organisations the option to lease unused spaces which may be an extra source of revenue which can be used to improve services more broadly.
However, key to the successful implementation of remote working are the considerations that need to be made for increased security vulnerabilities – remote working, whilst effective for social distancing and convenient for staff increases the attack surface area. With so many employees at home, threats can now extend to their devices as well as any internal organisational resources, so any policy must account for this and enhance security.
Outside of security considerations, healthcare leaders must also keep a keen eye on the social and emotional well-being of their staff. Fortunately, there are some great ways this can be achieved – for
example, video calls with individual staff or encouraging self-care and wellbeing through various apps such as Calm or Headspace. Although, staff need to be encouraged to also take regular breaks from their screens. Care needs to be taken so that any additional apps or video calls don’t exacerbate the stresses they’re trying to solve.
Increased prioritisation of technology projects
Prior to COVID-19, network upgrades were often seen as a ‘nice to have’, but if we’ve learnt anything in that past few months it’s the value that technology can provide – allowing for continuity of service for patients – and the importance for healthcare providers to properly invest in it.
Moving forward, projects will face additional scrutiny, with their emphasis being on solving problems and improving patient experiences. Yet, it is important to recognise that many healthcare services are increasingly stretched, and even as the R-rate comes down, it won’t reduce the pressure on services anytime soon. Ultimately this means that not every project will receive the necessary funding it requires. Healthcare providers need to establish effective ways of storing the data they collect, that allow services to be in a position to better respond to specific needs with the limited resources they might have.
Population health will remain a key concern
Perhaps one of the most concerning trends during the crisis has been the choice of many to delay medical care and treatment for manageable diseases.
Whilst the pandemic has led to a boom in areas like telehealth, the healthcare sector must continue to investigate other means to enable it to connect its patient populations with the expert care healthcare professionals can provide.
As new methods are tried and tested, patients and healthcare staff will generate more data for healthcare systems to evaluate. The benefit of incorporating additional data sources into patient’s records is that the system and the healthcare teams accessing it can create a more detailed picture of a patient’s health, ultimately allowing them to deliver better health outcomes.
With increases in the amount of data created, a potential hiccup could be how quickly current networks can route real-time data to a computing location and return insights. A key distinction needs to be made between the data that heads off-site for deeper analysis and the data that needs to stay local for immediate action – and this is where the trend toward edge data centres comes to the fore. Unlike traditional data centres built off-sight, these data centres are built closer to where the data is generated. Healthcare organisations would do well to find the right balance between edge data and traditional data centres.
Fundamentally, COVID-19 has presented healthcare services around the world with an unprecedented challenge. Whilst the initial onrush of caring for those who have been unfortunate enough to contract the virus must be paramount, the hard work of adjusting to the new normal we face is only just beginning.