As the pandemic eases, healthcare leaders must resist the urge to take the foot completely off the gas. Many of the decisions we face in 2021 could determine how our hospitals fare in a still-unrealized post-pandemic world.
For more than a year now, the COVID pandemic has created a survival imperative for health systems to adapt and innovate. Healthcare workers stepped up nobly to the task. Practically overnight, clinicians engineered new delivery systems and implemented sweeping safety measures to protect staff and patients. These fast and thoughtful actions saved thousands of lives. However, they also demanded much from our front-line providers.
Into the second year of the pandemic, it’s natural to pause for healing and reassessment. At the same time, healthcare leaders must resist the urge to take the foot completely off the gas. Many of the decisions we face now could determine how our hospitals fare in a still-unrealized post-pandemic world.
Over the past few years, our industry made amazing strides in patient-centric care delivery. Telehealth, hospital at home, and mobile care teams all helped keep patients connected to our hospitals while slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
But this innovative spirit is giving way to doubt and hesitation. Most experts expect at least some regulatory waivers that fostered telehealth expansion to expire or roll back. As a result, many systems are taking a “wait and see” approach to virtual care innovation and investment.
Gregg Miller, MD
Chief Medical Officer
While caution is warranted, it’s also crucial for hospitals and clinicians to remain proactive and goal-oriented in the face of uncertainty. As both patients and clinicians discovered during the pandemic, telehealth has enormous benefits in the form of access, patient satisfaction, and cost containment. It’s therefore essential to keep care delivery innovation moving forward within a strategic, goal-oriented framework. A standout example is Vituity’s partnership with health-tech startup Decoded Health to create a virtual medical assistant that automates the patient intake process and force multiplies provider teams.
While we should not see the nationwide surges of late 2020 again, hospitals must be prepared for future volume. It’s crucially important for healthcare leaders to remember that the pandemic is far from over. New variants continue to spread in low-vaccination areas throughout the country and globally. Even highly vaccinated communities continue to feel the virus’s impact. My hospital in suburban Seattle has seen higher volumes and acuities throughout this summer and is currently full to the point of transferring some patients.
The severity of the next flu season could also make or break hospitals’ recovery efforts. Because the 2020-21 season was so mild, fewer people developed immunity to new influenza and RSV strains now circulating. This could add up to a severe flu season next winter, especially if pandemic-weary communities are less willing to mask, social distance, and get flu vaccinations. While I hope we have a similarly mild influenza season in 2021, it’s not unthinkable that a severe influenza epidemic could coincide with a cold-weather resurgence of COVID-19.
As we can see, healthcare leaders still have a lot to gain from disaster preparedness. A solid surge response could mean the difference between another year in survival mode and achieving our growth and strategic goals.
As the pandemic continues, hospital emergency departments are struggling to meet a surge of pent-up mental health demand. In particular, teens and young adults have been significantly impacted by disruptions to their social support systems. The scary thing is, we may be only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Trauma experts conceptualize PTSD as an evolving process. Only now that the emergency is passing can we begin to feel its psychological impact. During this return to safety, symptoms such as numbing, hyperarousal, and intrusive or repetitive thoughts often manifest.
Historically, emergency departments have seen a sustained uptick in behavioral health visits for years following a time-limited regional disaster (e.g., Hurricane Katrina). It’s anyone’s guess how or for how long a yearlong global pandemic will impact our collective mental health. What’s clear is that we need to help our emergency departments more effectively treat and disposition behavioral health patients. One solution is Vituity’s Emergency Psychiatric Intervention program, which provides ED teams with tools for risk stratification, medication management, and trauma-informed care.
Coalitions of healthcare organizations, such as Moving Health Home, are dedicating time, energy, and resources to enable clinical care delivery in the places patients feel most comfortable—their homes. Many hospital at home pilot programs began thriving during the pandemic, and the possibilities and opportunities go beyond this time.
To succeed, health systems and clinicians will have to redefine what we do and move from being location-based to location-agnostic. We need to shoulder the responsibility of stepping out into our communities, meeting patients where they are, and bringing them the care they need. This shift toward patient-centered care starts in our hearts and minds. Emergency department physicians must step into the expanded role of the emergency physician. Likewise, hospitalists must embrace the more inclusive idea of being acute care physicians.
To remain competitive, it’s imperative that hospitals accelerate virtual care adoption and close the widening gap with their outpatient colleagues. Many primary care clinicians are quite comfortable with virtual care and have invested in telehealth infrastructure, while hospital-based clinicians are still only familiar with in-person patient assessments. This does a disservice both to the hospital and the patient. After all, who knows better than an emergency physician whether a patient should come to the hospital? And who is better positioned than a hospitalist to notice signs of deterioration in a newly discharged patient?
While today’s healthcare leaders face many unprecedented challenges, they also have unique opportunities to improve care delivery and accessibility for all patients. The pandemic has driven home the need to integrate the healthcare experience, shore up community hospitals, and improve the quality of life for our patients and clinicians. By staying the course in the face of uncertainty, we can create a healthcare ecosystem that is stronger, more humane, and sustainable against future challenges.
Learn more about current trends driving healthcare delivery transformation.