The healthcare industry has been among the slowest to fully implement digital transformation on a holistic level. According to a 2018 collaborative study conducted by Adobe and Econsultancy, only 7% of healthcare entities reported digital transformation as a top healthcare trend. However, the industry has shown more of a willingness to change in recent years. Yet, never has the need or the likelihood for the digital transformation of the healthcare system been more apparent than it is following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Historically resisting the move to digital
The healthcare industry’s resistance to digital transformation is largely a cultural one. At the most basic level, providers and insurance companies are accustomed to their processes and their organizational structures are not conducive to change. Moreover, outdated and/or ineffective IT infrastructures serve as a major roadblock.
At a more systematic level, governments play an active role in guiding technological changes to their healthcare systems. For instance, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a concerted effort by the U.S. government to encourage the widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHR). While some 80% of practitioners have moved to some form of EHR system, a lack of uniformity and additional government guidance has impeded change.
Provider shortages are a big problem. Physicians are stretched thin. They are unwilling to invest their time or precious resources into modifying their existing and proven workflows. There is also a “swing for the fences” mentality that exists in nearly every American institution. Simply put, unless the technological offerings are viewed as truly transformative, the cost-benefit analysis weighs against implementing any new processes.
The impact of COVID-19 on the process of digital transformation
Interestingly enough, the Coronavirus pandemic both encourages and hinders change. On the one hand, overtaxed healthcare resources have placed the system into survival mode. Organizations that are playing catchup are less likely to think about the long-term implementation of digital technologies.
On the other hand, the outbreak has presented some new challenges that will foster innovation. For instance, the ability to offer patients alternatives to traditional in-person office visits through things like telehealth will shift from a convenience to a necessity. In the short-term, we have seen that different healthcare entities are embracing digital technologies.
So, while healthcare organizations may not be thinking about a long-term move towards digitization, a need to rapidly adopt new processes to meet COVID-19 challenges will likely indirectly lead the industry there anyway.
Methods being used right now in the age of COVID-19
To understand where digitization in the healthcare industry is headed, it is useful to look at how organizations have modified their workflows to meet COVID-19 challenges.
Expanding and shifting roles
We mentioned above that one major obstacle the healthcare industry faces is a provider shortage. During the pandemic, nonclinical staff have been forced to play much larger roles. The continued expansion of support staff roles will prove instrumental in freeing up physician resources. Likewise, physicians have been forced to work outside of their specialties. This may change how providers treat patients and even run their practices.
Remote and at-home care
Remote forms of care were already becoming increasingly popular. In fact, in the past few years, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has significantly increased reimbursement for services like remote monitoring and telehealth. During the pandemic, the CMS has further relaxed reimbursement restrictions, allowing providers to treat more patients through remote forms of care.
Remote care trends are being seen across multiple specialties. Not only are we seeing an increase in the number of providers offering remote monitoring and telehealth appointments, but physicians are performing at-home procedures. As social distancing becomes a new norm, crowded physician and hospital waiting rooms may become a thing of the past.
The need for speed
Healthcare organizations are not generally known for institutional efficiency. Faced with life-and-death decisions on a mass scale, organizations have been forced to respond quickly. Communication at both the organizational level and among different organizations has become more efficient. Work flow adaptions to respond to the crisis will become the new norm. An increasing shift to digital technological efficiencies will be needed to accommodate new ways of doing business.
The need to share
While it is true that most providers have transitioned to some form of EHR system, great inefficiencies in the cross-organizational sharing of data exist. This is largely due to a lack of integration between systems. Providers need to access patient data in real-time.
This is important at both the patient-level and at the system-level. For instance, governmental entities need to examine data to understand the medical landscape prior to setting and lifting stay-at-home orders. For these reasons, we will likely see significant improvement in digital data gathering and sharing capabilities.
More efficient supply chains
To say that healthcare system supply chains failed, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, is an understatement. An inability for organizations to readily obtain supplies can lead to catastrophic losses. The industry needs scalable solutions to dramatically increase or decrease production and distribution in times of need. The lessons learned from the COVID-19 response should fundamentally change supply chains by making their more transparent and efficient. This can only be accomplished through the digitization of the process.
Enter Automation and AI…
Automation and Artificial Intelligence have already seeped into every major industry, including the healthcare system. From the use of chatbots and virtual health assistants, to highly individualized treatment plans and digital process automation, these technologies are helping organizations maximize efficiencies and offer higher levels of care. But in new COVID-19 world, Automation and AI will play an instrumental role in society returning to normal – whatever the new normal may be.
Organizations like pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are already utilizing machine learning algorithms to develop potential vaccines and/or treatments. Not only can AI help organizations to do this quicker, but also at a fraction of the cost. Healthcare organizations will increasingly employ AI to treat patients efficiently and to save lives.
The Coronavirus pandemic has extracted an unfathomable toll on global society. Organizations have been forced to try new things, relying heavily on digital technologies. Yet, if there is to be a silver-lining, we will likely witness the long overdue digital transformation of the healthcare system.