Peter Ziese

Lessons learned from COVID-19: Three priorities for where we go next in healthcare

May 14, 2021
By Peter Ziese

COVID-19 has impacted our lives in every way, particularly in the healthcare industry, with the pandemic putting pressure on an already strained healthcare ecosystem. But along with the challenges it brought, it’s also important to recognize and reflect on the innovation and perseverance we’ve seen come out of the healthcare industry during this time. From healthcare systems quickly pivoting protocols and ways of working to keep their staff and patients safe, to the impressive feat of developing and distributing vaccines in under a year. So, the next big question is: where do we go from here?

As we look ahead and aim to adopt long term strategies for the future, I envision three key areas that healthcare organizations should prioritize: putting healthcare providers first, leveraging technology to expand care outside of the hospital and utilizing scalable solutions to increase preparedness.

Putting healthcare providers first
As the pandemic persists, healthcare workers are continuing to experience volumes of sick patients and workloads that have never been seen before, increasing their levels of burnout and stress. It’s imperative that we begin to group clinician safety in with patient safety, as one can’t exist on its own without the support of the other. We must help alleviate their burdens, while also creating tools that support their workflows and putting in place protocols that help keep them safe.

An important way to help relieve this strain is by looking to technologies within the hospital, such as remote patient monitoring. Continuous monitoring has always been an asset in patient care, ensuring patients are monitored even when a physician isn’t in the room, and alerting them when a patient’s condition changes. But, this technology has become invaluable during the pandemic as it can help minimize physical touchpoints with highly contagious patients by detecting and alerting clinicians of changes to their condition without needing to be at the bedside – this ensures patients have the oversight and care they need, while physicians can keep an eye from a distance where possible. While this helps with physical safety, clinical decision support (CDS) tools also offer actionable clinical insights to clinicians, extracted from massive volumes of data, helping them determine which patients need attention most immediately.

COVID-19 also forced health systems to recognize another area of clinician safety that needed to be prioritized – critical care training. With large patient influxes, critical care nurses must care for their own critical care patients and also supervise non-critical care nurses to ensure standard levels of care are maintained. Health systems will need to implement standard protocols for cross-training staff – with an emphasis on critical care – so that clinicians feel informed about how to keep themselves and their patients safe. To provide additional support on top of cross-training, hospitals can utilize tele-ICU programs to further expand critical care capabilities. By helping to enable off-site clinicians in a centralized location to support bedside staff and help manage patients, care teams can be supplemented and offer expanded patient care.

These are both use cases that add value now to meet more immediate needs but will also have a long-term impact and benefit to healthcare providers’ daily lives.

Using technology to expand care outside the hospital
In addition to clinical decision support tools, artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies that leverage predictive algorithms can help clinicians and patients remain safer. An overarching obstacle throughout the pandemic has been providing care to a large influx of patients, while also mitigating risk of exposure as much as possible, making the need for innovative solutions to help contain virus spread critical. Health informatics like data integration and AI can provide connected patient care management whenever and wherever care happens, helping to keep patients out of the hospital and improving patient outcomes for those that are discharged.

For example, in some instances patients with chronic conditions who are having acute episodes can be effectively and appropriately monitored from at home, as sensors and patient-owned technology can provide clinicians with a consistent line of site into patients’ conditions. This can help reduce their risk of virus exposure for the patients, it also frees up bed capacity and resources, allowing clinicians to focus their attention on only the sickest patients.

Cloud-based solutions that are interoperable and help to inform data-driven decisions can allow clinicians to maintain visibility into patients’ wellbeing – detecting issues before they lead to a readmission. For example, patients who are discharged from the hospital, have COVID-19 symptoms or are suspected to have COVID-19, could wear stick-on biosensors patches that provide continuous, effortless monitoring from their home. The data then gets aggregated and shared directly with clinicians so they can make informed decisions about next steps for care.

While these applications clearly benefit patients and physicians during the pandemic, the ability to effectively monitor patients at home provides a long-term advantage as well. Giving patients and providers tools to navigate home care will ensure continuity of their care, also when it comes to managing chronic conditions or an acute episode, while helping to free up hospital beds and prevent readmissions.

Focusing on scalable solutions to increase preparedness
One of the biggest challenges during COVID-19 has been the need to accommodate record numbers of patients needing care at the same time. At times, this led to equipment shortages – such as patient monitors, ventilators and PPE – and hospital capacity overloads. Focusing on scalable solutions can help address these challenges.

In a crisis event like COVID-19, many hospitals have used portable tools like a tablet to allow them to quickly and safely scale up when they were seeing higher than normal patient volumes. To address overcrowding and other challenges, many created temporary care settings for patients outside of the hospital or in isolation wards to allow for separation. In these instances, the availability of portable, remote and easily transferable tools is essential in delivering consistent and quality care. Tools like these can allow clinicians to remotely monitor multiple patients to reduce contact as well as lessen bedside monitoring disturbances and interruptions. They are also beneficial for the future as well, as care continues to move outside the walls of the hospital.

A larger and more holistic approach to scaling up or down would be considering “as-a-service” models, which can help enterprises with necessary organizational agility and visibility by keeping systems up to date on technology. For example, while patient monitors have always been a key investment priority for hospitals, COVID-19 has made them even more critical due to drastic shifts in patient demand. It’s become apparent that this expandable or retractable “monitoring as-a-service” model is key to meeting these fluctuations in demands. When selecting solutions like patient monitors both now and in the future, organizations must make sure they aren’t just selecting devices, but also trusted patient management partners they can rely on across the care continuum. By leveraging connected devices, software, services, and collaborative cross business solutions, health systems can provide the most clinically valuable insights to all points of care, supporting shared decision-making and empowering care teams to continuously modify therapy for optimal outcomes. For example, in an acute care setting, comprehensive patient management solutions can detect clinical instability early so clinicians can intervene, which is vital in avoiding ICU readmission and acute clinical conditions, such as cardiac arrest, sepsis, or hemodynamic shock.

Building on this Momentum
COVID-19 forced the healthcare industry to innovate like never before. Many of the learnings can be taken forward and applied to the healthcare industry beyond the pandemic. As we look ahead to the future, we need to make sure these solutions are ones that will last. The past year has taught us there is a real need to build a foundation for health systems that is more nimble and agile, allowing providers to move quickly and adjust to things like patient influxes. By building on and maintaining this momentum, and in collaboration with health systems and medtech vendors, the healthcare industry will be better prepared for whatever comes our way.

About the author: Peter Ziese is the head of clinical innovation and strategy for Philips.