How the Pandemic is Opening the Digital Front Door to Healthcare Access

Lisa Sershen, Chief Digital Officer, Westmed Medical Group

Lisa Sershen, Chief Digital Officer, Westmed Medical Group

There is no doubt that the pandemic has hastened the adoption of technology in healthcare. Around the world, EMR and EHR programs are now considered the basic standard of care when 20 years ago, only the most innovative healthcare organizations were able to invest in this technology. Just as the HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) Act of 2009 spurred the widespread adoption of EMR technology across the country, the CARES act, which issued waivers to grant payment parity between telehealth and in-person doctor’s visits, resulted in telehealth and remote patient monitoring (RPM) becoming a widely adopted solution to safe caregiving.

The truth is the demand for this technology already existed, but there were regulatory barriers to accessing this care before the pandemic.  One interesting statistic we found in our own practice when analyzing our telehealth usage trends after the initial lockdown from April to June 2020, was that our largest demand for telehealth visits actually came from the 60+ year-old population. Out of more than 80,000 online appointments conducted at Westmed during that time period, our 60+ population used telehealth 136 percent more than our 18-30-year-old population.  This revealed to us that our preconceived notions about this demographic being less “tech savvy” and less willing to use new technology may have been exaggerated and that adoption of telehealth among an older population is probably less of a struggle than many anticipated it would be. Telehealth will be a key tool in our arsenal to meet the growing healthcare demands of that population, and this offering too is now considered part of the basic standard of care.

  In this age of immediacy and multi-tasking, we need to make it easier for people to get the care they need, while still continuing with their day 

The power of technology has undeniably benefited patients and providers, and continues to disrupt the healthcare industry. Health institutions must adopt a digital-first strategy for the industry to meet consumer behavior. Picking up the phone and calling your local restaurant to order delivery is now an abhorrent concept and often leads to human error, while booking that same order online makes communication simpler and more streamlined. Similarly, patients no longer want to pick up the phone to book an appointment, or schedule their lab appointments. In this age of immediacy and multi-tasking, we need to make it easier for people to get the care they need, while still continuing with their day. This is why we have to create a digital front door for our patients—meaning, the patient’s first touchpoint with their healthcare provider of choice should be at their fingertips when they first book their appointment online. From there, they can choose the setting to access their care that makes the most sense to them—whether it’s a telehealth appointment or an in-person visit.

Most practices, under pressure to reduce healthcare costs while improving quality, are also looking at healthcare from a wider lens and encouraging patients and providers to incorporate a prevention strategy. The future will see more widespread adoption of at-home patient monitoring, especially now that CMS has permanently expanded coverage for RPM. Now providers can remain up to speed on a patient’s health conditions, monitor their individual data, and provide insights on their care even before the patient may be feeling sick. A few nights of bad sleep may indicate a patient is experiencing more stress at home, while a sudden weight gain or loss could indicate something more serious. For patients with chronic conditions, this at-home monitoring could be even more lifesaving and could lead providers to switch medications, before a patient even knows they need to do so. Westmed is already working on plans to make this technology available to our patients.

The benefits of RPM will also be crucial to help COVID-19 patients in an already overburdened healthcare system. At Westmed, an extension of the online visit model was the implementation of a COVID-19 virtual clinic. For the specific management of the novel coronavirus, we scheduled all patients who were discharged with a diagnosis of COVID-19 with follow up appointments at key intervals in the virtual clinic. This kept providers informed of patient status (particularly respiratory) and offered continued support to the patient while they were able to remain at home. In certain instances, the virtual clinic helped prevent deterioration that might have gone undetected or required the patient to need an emergency department or hospital admission. The addition of remote pulse oximeters to help providers check on patient oxygen levels and begin the process of a smooth transition to more involved care is another added benefit to virtual clinics. It is estimated that the more contagious British variant of COVID-19, B.1.1.7, wil1 be the dominant strain by March 2021. If this new variant of COVID-19 worsens the current situation in New York State, virtual clinics with at-home monitoring, could potentially go a long way to easing patient anxiety and keeping people out of hospital.

Healthcare is and always will be a patient first industry, and we need to continue delivering to meet the demand for care. When enhancing or introducing anything new to a healthcare organization, it is imperative to think of how it will be implemented from a digital-first mindset. Technology is what is keeping us connected, especially now, when everyone feels so disconnected. My hope is that technology advancements that make both giving and receiving care less complicated will continue long after the pandemic is over.

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