Healthcare IT Challenges and Opportunities in the COVID-19 Era

Medicus IT

By Medicus IT

Q&A With Medicus IT's Mike Jann

Who can better speak to the challenges and opportunities of this era than someone with a front-row seat to how providers are implementing technology? Mike Jann is the virtual chief information officer for Medicus IT clients. In this role, he draws on his more than 20 years of experience in managed services. Mike helps practitioners across the United States understand the practical benefits that managed services provide to healthcare IT.

In this Q&A, Mike discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the technology used by practices and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) and what providers should do to strengthen their preparation for a potential second wave of the novel coronavirus or the emergence of hotspots.

Q: In this COVID-19 era, what are you seeing as the top healthcare IT pain points of practices, ASCs, and other providers that Medicus IT works with?

Mike Jann: The top challenge has largely revolved around phone systems and providers wanting to take their office phones home with them so they can perform more work remotely. Once providers wanted to allow their workforce to telecommute, it became apparent to some providers that the phone systems that had served them well when staff were physically in the office were not as effective with supporting these staff working from their homes.

While one might think that a big challenge would be setting up our clients' staff with secure, remote access to patient and practice information, granting this remote access went smoothly. Most of our clients were able to log in remotely with relative ease. In early March, Medicus IT experienced a huge influx for such requests when everyone was shifting a lot of non-essential people out of the facilities. We needed to grant more people with remote access than before, but our clients generally had the infrastructure required to make this a fairly painless and efficient process.

Q: What kind of technology is helping Medicus IT clients navigate this new landscape?

MJ: From the patient side, we saw a huge increase in the movement toward telemedicine. Some of our clients had been looking into telemedicine and were tiptoeing around it for some time, but the pandemic essentially made everybody jump in feet first.

Since so many patients were unable to come into the office, whether because they were at higher risk or did not want to risk potential exposure, telemedicine was a boon for pediatrics, primary care, and other types of practices. It allowed them to avoid putting the care of their patients on hold. These practices have used telemedicine to continue providing a range of proactive services, such as annual maintenance visits.

Now we are seeing clients relying more on technology to safely complete the steps required for in-person visits. For example, many practices are providing patients with fillable digital forms on tablets or accessible via portals that include questions about potential exposure and COVID-19 symptoms that patients can complete from their cars to keep people from spending significant time in the waiting room. More practices are using technology to take patients' temperatures when they walk into the waiting room. Clients are also increasingly using text messaging to inform patients of when to enter the building for their appointment.

From an operational perspective, clients have leveraged video conference platforms like Microsoft Teams to help keep their internal teams better in touch when they cannot meet in person. These platforms are great for one-on-one communications and larger meetings, both through video and via instant messaging. Use of this technology has created new proficiencies and efficiencies. In fact, we are hearing from clients that they intend to rely more heavily on the platforms even after the pandemic is behind us.

We've also used these platforms to schedule meetings with clients. They're great when our presence is not required on site or when we are unable to be there in person, such as during the peak time of the pandemic.

Q:What do organizations that are successfully leveraging healthcare IT during this pandemic have in common?

MJ: The ones that have adapted really well to the health crisis are generally those that were staying current on technology. They may not have been early adapters, but they were not late, either. These are organizations that were already leveraging resources like instant messaging and had protocols and tools in place to offer telemedicine. The technology footprint was there, which allowed organizations to expand their usage more easily or, in the case of telemedicine, launch a program. These are also the organizations that are exploring how to further leverage their healthcare IT to better mobilize their workforce and restrict staff so only essential personnel must be in the office.

Unfortunately, providers that have been largely averse to changing their IT are struggling. These are organizations that continue to rely on paper charts or are hesitant to begin migrating to the cloud. While change can be disruptive, sometimes change is for the good. Providers that have at least kept up with the latest IT trends are finding it much easier to effectively navigate these unchartered waters.

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Q: Considering the uncertainty facing providers today, such as the potential for hotspots and a second wave that threatens to disrupt operations again, what would you advise practices and ASCs do now concerning their healthcare IT to be prepared for these possibilities?

MJ: If your organization struggled with effectively responding to the spring's stay-at-home orders and limits placed on non-essential services, take whatever steps are necessary now to prepare for the potential return of such restrictions. If you don't, and the situation in the country gets bad again, you may not have the time or ability then to respond effectively or you won't be able to secure the necessary support to complete the work that will enable you to weather the storm.

For the organizations that were generally successful in their response, write up the plan that you will follow if you need to scale back services again. Make sure this plan includes what worked well for you and focuses on how you can strengthen those aspects of your initial response that did not go as smoothly as you hoped.

If you tried to launch a telemedicine program and experienced some bumps in the road, you're not alone, and I suggest that you don't throw the idea of telemedicine out the window. In the short and long term, it will likely be in your best interest to continue offering telemedicine while striving to become very efficient at it. Telemedicine is and will continue to be an important service. It allows practices to more effectively support patients who live within and even outside of your typical market. If a patient moves, telemedicine can allow you to continue to see that patient.

See what your practice can do concerning support of and services around wearable technologies. These tools are only going to continue to evolve immensely. We'll eventually get to a place where a patient can get an entire physical without going into a provider's office. Stay at the forefront of these evolving technologies.

Also, pay close attention to the changes that electronic medical record (EMR) companies are making from the clinical side concerning telemedicine. Embrace telemedicine rather than wind down or scale back a program as things eventually return to some semblance of normalcy. In addition, try to develop creative work-from-home policies supported by technology so you can take actions that will better allow you to help prevent the spread of the virus by moving the non-essential workers home for a period of time and hopefully avoiding a full lockdown.

This is the time for practices to evaluate their situation and preparedness for the challenges down the road, such as a second wave, flu outbreak, or any other disaster. Ask yourself: What do you need to do to be better prepared? Reach out to your managed services provider's client success manager and/or EMR vendor to see if they can help get you to where you think you should be in terms of your level of preparedness. Don't accept blanket advice as every provider is different and has their own strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement.

Q: What technology coming down the pipeline are you keeping a close eye on?

MJ: It's all about telemedicine these days. That's the big technology taking off at the moment. Along with telemedicine is wearable technology, which is experiencing rapid developments. I'm diabetic and wear a device that takes my blood sugar and uploads it to my provider. My provider can tell me if I'm doing well or if I need to take more or less insulin. There's wearable technology that monitors and captures blood pressure and all of a patient's vital signs and sends it to the provider for feedback versus the patient needing to come into the office every 2 to 3 weeks for ongoing and follow-up appointments. As telemedicine gets into what we can think of as its second iteration, it has incredible potential to reshape much of how healthcare is delivered.

For anybody that has not adapted telemedicine yet, if your industry permits it and the service is covered by insurance, strongly consider getting on the bandwagon now. If we end up with a multi-month lockdown down the road, some providers may not be able to endure another substantial disruption if they cannot support patients remotely.

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