The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many of the shortcomings of the global healthcare system. But it also helped us discover potential solutions to those challenges.
Three key issues were a lack of access to data; increased risk of cyberattack; and staffing shortages. All of these problems can be solved with innovative thinking and the help of the right technology.
#1. Data Is Everywhere--and It’s Inaccessible.
No matter where we go or what we do, we’re surrounded by (and generating) data. Indeed, the volume of data has increased exponentially each year, and that includes medical data. It’s likely that the volume of medical data will also continue to rise with increased adoption of internet-enabled medical devices.
In most cases, more data means better decisions. But in the case of the US healthcare system, that data is often inaccessible to the people who need it most: healthcare providers and patients. Consider, for instance, that people must carry a piece of paper to show they’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine. There’s no centralized way to track or access that information across a fragmented healthcare system that includes myriad organizations, from individual practitioners to community healthcare systems and everything in between.
According to one healthcare IT expert, this lack of data access is why the US healthcare system isn’t really a system at all, but rather an “underperforming conglomerate of independent entities.” In the best case scenario, patients might have inconvenient experiences as they visit different care providers with stacks of paper medical records and CDs of radiology results. In the worst case scenario, lack of data can result in poorer patient outcomes and even death.
The Solutions Are Top-Down and Bottom-Up
The US government has an important role to play in expanding access to data, while still ensuring patient privacy. The Institute of Medicine issued a directive for electronic health records (EHR) more than two decades ago. But the US remains far from universal adoption of EHR, due to both technological and regulatory limitations.
Implementing new patient identification solutions would help the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) explore new opportunities to improve data accessibility. Congress can step in to make this possible from the top-down.
Individual healthcare providers can also provide some bottom-up solutions with the right tools, technology, and perspective. Providers can put patients first by adopting tools that allow patients to share their medical information with everyone in their healthcare ecosystem. For example, using an app like Medicai allows patients to easily share their radiology results without carrying CDs around.
#2. Cybersecurity Threats Are Here to Stay.
Cybersecurity isn’t a new concern for the healthcare industry, but it became a much more pressing issue last year. The FBI reported a 300% rise in cybercrimes during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic. And according to HIPAA Journal, there were two reported breaches per day among US healthcare organizations in April 2021 alone, which compromised 2,583,117 healthcare records. The monthly total of 62 breaches was substantially higher than the monthly averages for the 12 previous months.
Meanwhile, the sudden shift to remote work and telemedicine meant that many healthcare organizations rapidly adopted new technology, with limited time and resources for additional security. This oversight has left plenty of opportunities for hackers, who will undoubtedly continue to target the healthcare industry in the coming years.
And finally, medical devices present an emerging cybersecurity threat. Older legacy devices were often designed without cybersecurity in mind, and they use antiquated hardware and software. Newer devices might be more secure, but they’re also more likely to be connected to the internet. That creates inherent vulnerabilities that healthcare organizations must also consider.
Cybersecurity Must Be Everyone’s Job
Cybersecurity can no longer be relegated to the IT team. Everyone across the organization must participate. This requires creating a culture of cybersecurity, where new employees get trained on best practices as part of the onboarding process, and all employees receive periodic refreshers on good computer habits.
The next step is to conduct thorough due diligence on both existing and potential technology providers. In many cases, these vendors provide even more enhanced security than an individual organization or healthcare provider might normally employ. But it’s important to identify and address any potential vulnerabilities.
Another frequently overlooked means of tightening cybersecurity is to eliminate unnecessary access points. For example, doctors often use multiple tools to share patients’ radiology scans, from Dropbox and Drive, to WeTransfer and WhatsApp. Each of these offers a potential entry point for a hacker, especially if they’re accessed via personal devices. Switching to an app such as Medicai can reduce these redundant access points and create a secure medical archive in the cloud.
#3. The healthcare workforce must be more scalable.
The healthcare industry has long struggled with staffing shortages and mismatches between supply and demand. The COVID-19 crisis merely exacerbated the issue of workforce scalability in healthcare.
As nurses and doctors came into contact with COVID-19 patients, they were more likely to contract the illness themselves, taking them out of the workforce. Burnout also increased dramatically among medical providers who were working much longer hours in more dangerous conditions. And quarantine requirements constrained the hiring of temporary or traveling staff from other parts of the country or world.
Recent research also shows that using average demand to guide nurse staffing levels doesn’t lead to optimal staffing decisions. This means that most hospitals are using a flawed model to make staffing decisions, which can negatively impact patient outcomes.
Dynamic Staffing Requires Creative, Innovative Thinking
One standout staffing issue of the pandemic was that some hospitals were completely overrun with patients, while others were mostly empty. However, there was no easy way to “share” staff across different healthcare providers. To eliminate this issue, healthcare providers must seek opportunities to partner with each other in crisis situations.
Using real-time data, along with predictive analytics, can help determine potential demand and capacity across all facilities. Many communities have implemented utilization plans for alternative-care sites. For example, they might share sites for COVID patients who no longer require acute care.
Other strategies for addressing staff shortages might include the following:
- Staggering PTO or incentivizing employees to work on weekends, holidays, and peak times
- Offer additional support for caregivers, such as meals or childcare
- Deliver cross-training to upskill personnel so they can fill critical roles
Virtual visits, telemedicine, and remote monitoring can also help ease demand on staff and increase the availability of beds for acute care patients. Because these methods can be used from virtually anywhere, staff need not be located close by. This gives new access to specialists and other healthcare providers as needed.
As the healthcare industry looks forward to the future, it’s important to remember the lessons learned during the past year. The improvisation and ingenuity that got us through the pandemic will help us solve these problems and face those that emerge in the years to come.