Earlier this year – pre-COVID-19 – we predicted that 2020 would bring continuing advances in three healthcare IT priorities: interoperability, clinical AI, and cloud adoption. While the world has changed dramatically since we last looked into our crystal ball, these technologies remain top priorities for C-level healthcare leaders. The pandemic has also helped kick-start the fourth trend, as telehealth is emerging as a critical technology for delivering care while protecting the health of patients and clinicians.
Here’s a closer look at these four trends and how they’ve evolved in a COVID world:
1. The pandemic highlights the importance of managed cloud services
The transition to the cloud was well underway before the pandemic. The ever-growing volume of health data – electronic medical records (EMR), medical images, genomic data, information from smart devices, and more – has overwhelmed the capabilities of most on-site healthcare data centers, making a move to the cloud inevitable.
Cloud systems play an important role in the response to COVID-19. For instance, with surging patient loads, healthcare systems and local governments collaborated via the cloud to establish overflow medical facilities in hotels, arenas, and other locations. Cloud solutions enabled clinicians and staff to readily access essential information from anywhere, whether they are working at home or another remote location.
The shift to cloud infrastructure will deliver benefits long after the pandemic, such as mobile-ready solutions and seamless user experiences that consumers have come to expect in other industries.
2. Unstructured data is a barrier to interoperability
Hospitals are making steady progress in achieving interoperability goals that support secure access to comprehensive patient records across the care continuum, according to a survey by Hyland Healthcare and HIMSS Media. The survey found dramatic improvement with respect to increasing patient satisfaction, meeting regulatory requirements, and maximizing the value of EMR investments.
However, more than half of the survey participants said managing unstructured data and content remains a major obstacle to achieving full interoperability. Unstructured content, such as physician notes, digital photos from the point of care, and even some lab results, are excluded from the patient’s EMR. The Hyland/HIMSS survey found that 73 percent of unstructured patient data remains inaccessible from the EMR, leaving a significant gap in health information.
The response to COVID-19 has compounded the need for interoperability as it has required a coordinated effort among clinicians, staff, public health officials, and patients to identify risk, control spread, and manage treatment. This demands tight integration between diverse IT systems. While hospitals report significant gains, there is more work to do.
3. Artificial Intelligence benefits have come into sharper focus
It’s widely recognized that artificial intelligence (AI) will help providers optimize workflows and support faster, more accurate medical decisions. The pandemic has underscored both the current role and future promise of AI. For example, providers have used AI algorithms to identify new clusters of unexplained pneumonia cases. Some providers are using AI to identity patients at high risk for complications based on pre-existing medical conditions. Researchers are using AI to find potential treatments by matching existing drug compounds with the molecular breakdown of COVID-19.
All of these efforts are made possible by AI’s ability to analyze large amounts of data with speed and precision. That’s especially important given that clinicians and staff are overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic.
4. Telehealth is here to stay
In response to the pandemic, many healthcare providers have made virtual health visits their preferred (and sometimes only) method of patient interaction. It’s a 180-degree shift from just a few months ago.
To support this essential change, government agencies and private insurers have relaxed reimbursement rules for telehealth visits. Medicare, for instance, is allowing providers to waive copays and deductibles for telehealth services. This has opened the way for a dramatic increase in telehealth visits. The American Medical Association reported a 1,000-fold increase in telehealth visits in some practices.
Now that clinicians and patients have seen how it can work, telehealth is likely to remain a key element of care delivery moving forward. While office visits will resume once the pandemic subsides, the pandemic has spotlighted benefits such as lower costs and improved convenience. This awareness will give telehealth staying power.
Frontline clinicians and staff are rightly recognized as heroes in the battle against COVID-19. But health IT decision-makers deserve a pat on the back as well for putting in place innovative healthcare technologies essential to fighting the pandemic. These four technologies have made a significant contribution to helping healthcare organizations deliver quality care while adapting the challenging circumstances. Perhaps its only silver lining, COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of key technologies that will have a lasting positive impact for clinicians and patients around the world.