In most U.S. hospitals, inpatient health care is equally distributed between nonprocedure and procedure-based services. Hospitals resorted to suspension of nonemergent procedures to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. This was further compounded by many patients’ self-selection to defer care, an abrupt reduction in the influx of patients from the referral base because of suboptimally operating ambulatory care services, leading to low hospital occupancy.
Hospitals across the nation have gone through a massive short-term financial crunch and unfavorable cash-flow forecast, which prompted a paradoxical work-force reduction. While some argue that it may be akin to strategic myopia, the authors believed that such a response is strategically imperative to keep the hospital afloat. It is reasonable to attribute the paucity of innovation to constrained resources, and health systems are simply staying overly optimistic about “weathering the storm” and reverting soon to “business as usual.” The technological framework necessary for deploying a telehealth solution often comes with a price. Financially challenged hospital systems rarely exercise any capital-intensive activities. By contrast, telehealth adoption by ambulatory care can result in quicker resumption of patient care in community settings. A lack of operational and infrastructure synchrony between ambulatory and in-hospital systems has failed to capture telehealth-driven inpatient volume. For example, direct admissions from ambulatory telehealth referrals was a missed opportunity in several places. Referrals for labs, diagnostic tests, and other allied services could have helped hospitals offset their fixed costs. Similarly, work flows related to discharge and postdischarge follow up rarely embrace telehealth tools or telehealth care pathways. A brisk change in the health care ecosystem is partly responsible for this.
Digital strategy needs to be incorporated into business strategy. For the reasons already discussed, telehealth technology is not a “nice to have” anymore, but a “must have.” At present, providers are of the opinion that about 20% of their patient services can be delivered via a telehealth platform. Similar trends are observed among patients, as a new modality of access to care is increasingly beneficial to them. Telehealth must be incorporated in standardized hospital work flows. Use of telehealth for preoperative clearance will greatly minimize same-day surgery cancellations. Given the potential shortage in resources, telehealth adoption for inpatient consultations will help systems conserve personal protective equipment, minimize the risk of staff exposure to COVID-19, and improve efficiency.
Digital strategy also prompts the reengineering of care delivery.10 Excessive and unused physical capacity can be converted into digital care hubs. Health maintenance, prevention, health promotion, health education, and chronic disease management not only can serve a variety of patient groups but can also help address the “last-mile problem” in health care. A successful digital strategy usually has three important components – Commitment: Hospital leadership is committed to include digital transformation as a strategic objective; Cost: Digital strategy is added as a line item in the budget; and Control: Measurable metrics are put in place to monitor the performance, impact, and influence of the digital strategy.
For decades, most U.S. health systems occupied the periphery of technological transformation when compared to the rest of the service industry. While most health systems took a heroic approach to the adoption of telehealth during COVID-19, despite being unprepared, the need for a systematic telehealth deployment is far from being adequately fulfilled. The COVID-19 pandemic brought permanent changes to several business disciplines globally. Given the impact of the pandemic on the health and overall wellbeing of American society, the U.S. health care industry must leave no stone unturned in its quest for transformation.
Dr. Lingisetty is a hospitalist and physician executive at Baptist Health System, Little Rock, Ark, and is cofounder/president of SHM’s Arkansas chapter. Dr. Prasad is medical director of care management and a hospitalist at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee. He is cochair of SHM’s IT Special Interest Group, sits on the HQPS committee, and is president of SHM’s Wisconsin chapter. Dr. Palabindala is the medical director, utilization management, and physician advisory services at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine and academic hospitalist at the University of Mississippi, both in Jackson.
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