The spike in COVID-19 cases during the summer of 2020 in some areas of the United States has made it clear that the pandemic is not a short-lived phase for many communities. Instead, it’s an enduring new circumstance to which healthcare organizations and consumers must adapt. Moving forward, health systems need to prepare to plan around, prepare for, and react to five main categories of COVID-19 concerns.
The following list is not a comprehensive summary of COVID-19 concerns but instead a selection of critical areas of awareness and strategy for healthcare organizations as they enter the coming year of the pandemic and beyond.
Events of 2020 have already pushed healthcare systems to master many changes. To prepare to and continue to shift according to COVID-19 trends and events, health systems must watch for activity and changes in five critical categories:
Healthcare providers and consumers are eager for safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19, but getting vaccines to market is only part of the challenge. Inoculating the public will require strategies around distribution (who gets the vaccine and when), and circumventing probable supply shortages in critical items (such as medical glass). Vaccination efforts will also require administration protocols. With over 165 COVID-19 vaccines in development, different vaccines will likely become available at different times, require different doses, and may even differ by effectiveness across populations.
Because researchers will not be able to produce enough vaccines worldwide immediately, administration prioritization will be essential. Organizations understand they should prioritize both frontline staff and the vulnerable, but how do they rank other candidates and distribute vaccines across communities? How do providers track not only single doses but vaccines that require multiple doses?
In short, there’s a lot the medical community doesn’t yet know about how to best leverage a vaccine. However, researchers and providers can prepare by using data to determining the most impactable populations to receive the vaccine as well as look to community models for administering other vaccines (e.g., flu) as a starting point.
Shelter-in-place orders in many communities and fear of contracting the virus have driven a massive shift towards virtual care (potentially as much as $250 billion of U.S. healthcare spending) as more patients choose remote options like telehealth in favor of office visits. Many experts predict the virtual care model is here to stay, but healthcare needs to be more proactive in managing this shift in the best interests of patients and providers.
Health systems must start preparing to evaluate its long-distance care, both in terms of patient satisfaction and outcomes, looking particularly for quality gaps and ways to be more effective. Evaluation of virtual care must involve understanding the level of complexity telehealth and other remote options can deliver as well as alternatives for care that can’t occur virtually (e.g., hospice care).
When organizations make widespread virtual care effective in both patient satisfaction and outcomes, they’ll have opportunities to expand their markets free of geographic limitations. And with changing reimbursement for remote care, health systems may also leverage virtual models to their financial benefit.
COVID-19 will drive health systems to evaluate their models of care, as lasting changes take hold from care delivery and provider experience to reimbursement (taking on more or less risk) and compliance with the CARES Act. As mentioned above, the shift to telehealth for non-emergent and routine care stands to reshape primary care, prompting questions about how and whether primary care providers will remain part of networks. Changes in care models also raise questions around clinician and staff burnout—what will new burdens look like, and how can organizations manage them (e.g., mental healthcare programs for healthcare workers)?
Care models will also have to differentiate between COVID-19 patients and all other care, as non-COVID-19 individuals make up the majority of a facility population. Critical questions include the following:
Pandemic-era care models must also accommodate renewed approaches to preventive (e.g., flu vaccination) and emergency department care (e.g., strokes, heart attacks), as visits have decreased in both areas amid outbreaks. Also, mental healthcare is a growing concern for the general public and likely a critical part of emerging care models.
Health systems have already encountered resource strain (including personal protective equipment, hospital beds, critical staffing, and more) during COVID-19 patient surges. Organizations can expect to see continuing demands as the disease spikes. Fortunately, an evolving understanding of COVID-19-impacted resources is informing management strategies and alternative approaches.
For example, organizations are using analytics-enabled capacity planning tools to balance resources with demand. Also, care teams are leveraging alternative care methods to ease resource strain, such as placing patients in respiratory distress on their stomachs to ease breathing instead of turning immediately to a ventilator. Also, resource management will continue to be a priority as potentially effective treatments emerge—for example, the promise of a steroid to help manage COVID-19 symptoms has created shortages of that medicine.
Data will continue to play a pivotal role in the COVID-19 era, making its improved accuracy, availability, and timeliness an imperative in better managing and preventing outbreaks as well as caring for affected individuals. During the first several months of the pandemic, gaps in understanding public health data hampered efforts to control spread, react to outbreaks, and advance vaccine and treatment research. The healthcare industry must embrace a better model for public health data that allows for widespread data aggregation to support organizations as they prepare for, prevent, and recover from the pandemic and plan for the future. A cloud-based data platform, such as the Health Catalyst Data Operating System (DOS™), provides a flexible infrastructure to manage and leverage data from multiple sources to meet COVID-19’s complex public health data demands.
With so much still unknown about COVID-19 and understanding ever-evolving, health systems must remain constantly vigilant around research, disease progression, and impacts within their organizations and broader communities. Awareness in the five key areas this article covers, as well as preparedness and willingness to adapt to emerging findings and challenges with data-informed strategy, will drive better patient outcomes and sustainable operations.
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