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Opportunity Uncovered: How COVID-19 Accelerated Healthcare Transformation

Opinion
Article

By embracing change, leveraging emerging trends and prioritizing patient-centered care, organizations and individuals can find opportunities for growth and innovation in the post-pandemic era.

Patrick Horine, M.H.A.

Patrick Horine, M.H.A.

The COVID-19 pandemic left an indelible mark on the healthcare landscape, spotlighting critical areas for improvement while accelerating transformations that were already underway. From addressing disparities in equity and access to adopting digital health strategies, the pandemic has forced healthcare to move swiftly to meet urgent needs.

First, let us look at some of the issues we had been facing and how these were changed by the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

Healthcare equity and access

Social determinants of health was an emerging topic before the pandemic. Poverty rates, lower education rates, high-risk living environments (including food deserts), lower-paying employment, and lack of insurance coverage all influence access to healthcare. Data from a 2021 Commonwealth Fund report identified that Black and American Indian/Alaska Native individuals are more likely than white individuals to face early mortality from conditions that are treatable with timely access to high-quality healthcare. COVID-19 worsened life expectancies for Black and Latinx people compared to white people, underscoring the urgent need to address inequalities in healthcare access and in outcomes.

Awareness of these disparities was highlighted by the pandemic, with issues such as vaccine distribution reaching mainstream media. The urgency of addressing these disparities has become increasingly apparent with the pandemic-based understanding that we’re all in this together; that my health may well depend on the health of everyone in my community and beyond.

Digital health strategies

The pandemic propelled a revolution in digital health, with telehealth and remote patient monitoring emerging as indispensable tools in delivering healthcare services. What was once a gradual trend in digital health has accelerated exponentially in response to COVID-19, transforming expectations and acceptance of how healthcare is accessed and delivered.

Telehealth platforms and monitoring devices have become commonplace, allowing for virtual consultations and remote patient management. The biggest payor in the United States, CMS, has recognized the importance of digital health in improving access to care, leading to expanded payment policies for telehealth services.

However, the rapid adoption of digital health technologies also presents challenges, including data privacy and security concerns. As healthcare organizations navigate this digital transformation, it is crucial to prioritize data protection and ensure the seamless integration of technology into existing workflows.

Acknowledgment of mental health parity

COVID-19 has brought mental health to the forefront of healthcare discussions, highlighting the importance of addressing psychological well-being alongside physical health. The pandemic’s psychological toll has been universal, leading to increased awareness and reduction of stigma around mental health issues.

Integration of mental health services into primary care settings and the proliferation of digital platforms for mental health support have made care more accessible to individuals in need. The pandemic has also prompted discussions around stress reduction techniques, resilience-building, and early intervention strategies as preventive measures to avoid the escalation of mental health issues.

Staffing

Another topic of growing concern is the shortage of qualified staff. According to the American Nurses Association, at the time the pandemic hit, retirements were already outpacing new entrants to the field. Aging and chronic disease populations had created increased demand, and workforce support was characterized as “inadequate.”

The nursing shortage is particularly pronounced in areas projected to experience the greatest growth, such as home health, telehealth, long-term care and outpatient settings. Addressing nurse shortages requires concerted efforts to attract and retain nursing talent, enhance workforce support, and explore innovative solutions to meet the evolving needs of the healthcare workforce and patient population.

Demand for technicians and physicians is also high, and combined, the need to attract and retain qualified staff has reached a crisis stage for some organizations.

Healthcare trends in response to change

The pandemic sparked significant growth for healthcare giants in the pharmaceutical and pharmacy/retail spaces, but health systems revenue increases were modest. A notable response to slow revenue growth has been the trend of mergers and acquisitions, aimed at achieving financial stability and sustainability. However, according to research from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation (NIHCM), consolidation has shown mixed evidence when it comes to lowering costs and improving quality. While consolidation aims to improve financial stability through resource pooling and cost-sharing, evidence suggests that cost savings are not always realized, and there is no guarantee of reduced costs for acquiring hospitals or that any savings realized is passed on to patients.

Another goal of mergers and acquisitions is data sharing and analytics, with the aim of leveraging consolidated data for improved population health management and personalized treatments. However, the effectiveness of consolidation in enhancing data-driven decision-making remains variable, depending largely on an organization’s sophistication in data utilization.

Additionally, consolidation aims to expand networks and integrate care, offering a more comprehensive patient experience. The success of these goals varies, too, emphasizing the need for strategic partnerships as an alternative response to industry challenges. Partnerships enable organizations to enhance service offerings and improve patient access, particularly care venue preferences shift toward outpatient and home-based services driven by an aging population and technological advancements.

The emergence of hospital-at-home models, facilitated by remote patient monitoring (RPM) technology, exemplifies the potential of strategic partnerships to address evolving healthcare needs while reducing costs and improving patient satisfaction. This approach aims to offer quality comparable to inpatient care while reducing the length of stay, or even of initial admission, and the associated costs. However, challenges such as technology infrastructure, patient education, and coordination among providers need to be addressed to ensure the successful implementation of such models. Those providers that have previously undertaken the accreditation process may be able to integrate more easily based on a readiness mindset and business practices that ensure important checks and balances are in place.

Overall, the evolving healthcare landscape underscores the importance of strategic collaborations and workforce preparedness in navigating industry trends and challenges. As demand for services grows, organizations must adapt their strategies to meet evolving patient needs while addressing workforce shortages and demographic shifts.

Embracing opportunities to leverage trends

In navigating these trends, caregivers must embrace opportunities for personal and professional growth. ACHC’s goal is to support healthcare professionals in delivering excellence to patients and in building sustainable practices that meet an organization’s goals.

Regardless of the position, individuals can take actionable steps to drive positive personal, patient, and organizational outcomes in a rapidly evolving healthcare landscape:

  • Enhance data analysis skills. Dive deep into the metrics collected and identify insights to improve quality of care.
  • Master relevant technologies. Become proficient in using technology within an organization to streamline processes and become a go-to resource for colleagues.
  • Expand network.Take the initiative to connect with professionals from different tracks on the healthcare continuum to explore intersections and foster collaboration.
  • Develop interdisciplinary collaboration skills. Utilize educational platforms like ACHCU Academy, tailored for leaders in home health, hospice, compounding pharmacy, hospital administration, facilities, and quality management, to foster collaboration across disciplines and organizations, facilitating shared problem-solving.
  • Promote mental health and resilience. Champion resilience and support within teams to foster a positive work environment and enhance overall well-being.

Finally, championing excellence in patient communication and cultural competency can enhance health equity and patient satisfaction. Patients with lower health literacy may struggle to navigate the healthcare system, understand medical instructions, and make informed decisions about their health. In fact, prioritizing quality in communication allows all healthcare professionals to contribute to building sustainable practices that meet the needs of diverse patient populations, fostering comfort, respect, and adherence to treatment regimens.

While COVID-19 presented challenges, it also catalyzed transformation within healthcare. By embracing change, leveraging emerging trends, and prioritizing patient-centered care, organizations and individuals can find opportunities for growth and innovation in the post-pandemic era.

Patrick Horine, M.H.A., is vice president, acute care services, the Accreditation Commission for Health Care, a nonprofit healthcare accrediting organization.


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