Jenny Lee

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Practices, activities and rituals we once relied on — from handshakes and luncheon meetings to crowded conference rooms and business travel — are now things of the past … at least for the foreseeable future. However, in the realm of healthcare technology, some of the changes present in our new reality are positive ones, including the evolution of the electronic health record (EHR).

Reliability, real-time data exchange and security became crucial as practitioners relied on remote access to patients, colleagues and others. Ensuring that they had cutting-edge EHRs and other supporting technology quickly became a top priority … and with good reason. For instance, tech that enables them to share information that helps quickly identify and isolate patients with COVID-19 not only saved lives, but also maximized their ability to create effective care plans for patients with the virus.

As we begin to forecast what a world without COVID-19 will look like, it’s clear that EHRs will not return to “business as usual.” In fact, organizations are looking more and more at tools that have the technological capabilities to achieve both short- and long-term goals and strategies.

For instance, we expect to see a growing dependence on analytics, which health systems, facilities, and practitioners will use to anticipate what challenges lie ahead and what they should do to prepare more efficiently for them. As reliance on telehealth increases, organizations and practitioners are tracking and analyzing these visits to gauge the use of this technology and its impact on preventing hospitalizations and emergency department visits.

For years, dashboards served as an important tool for practitioners looking to track data and identify trends or issues. Now, organizations are using customized COVID-19-specific dashboards to track the spread of the illness, the availability of PPE and additional factors related to containing the virus.

This essential information helps facility leaders identify and address trends or problems promptly. It also equips interdisciplinary team members and networks of facilities with consistent, real-time data. As a result, everyone knows what’s happening and when, and they can offer smarter insights and solutions more quickly. At a time when more people are working remotely and in-person meetings and hallway “stand-ups” aren’t possible, these dashboards help keep everyone informed, engaged and unified.

By now, everyone knows about the power of telehealth. Even initially skeptical practitioners and organizations are now embracing it. This new appreciation of telehealth will likely help resolve a problematic disconnect. In 2019, a J.D. Power survey revealed that consumers were highly satisfied with telehealth services they experienced, and 65% of people who used these services said they would recommend them to others. However, a third of consumers said telehealth wasn’t available to them, and 37% said they didn’t know if telehealth was offered by their care provider or health system. Moving forward, watch for more providers promoting telemedicine to patients and investing in upgraded technology (such as state-of-the-art audio and video systems) to maximize the effectiveness of these visits.

Throughout the pandemic, many organizations and practitioners learned that their EHRs can do a lot more than collect information for minimal data set (MDS) and billing purposes. They found that this technology can serve as an intrinsic part of their workflows, used for efforts like remote patient monitoring and virtual care. The “typical” way of doing things won’t exist anymore, and as the industry awakens to this reality, it will increasingly look to tech tools for new solutions.

Cutting-edge EHR technology will be a top priority for health care organizations of all sizes, partly because the coronavirus-related remote work trend is unlikely to fade as the pandemic eases. According to a Gartner survey, 48% of employees are likely to continue working remotely at least part time as we move forward.

Addressing this shift in how people work, more employers are investing in portable devices and better software to keep their staff connected in real-time and ensure data security. At the same time, they are looking to technologies that monitor and manage productivity, such as virtual clocking in and out. Elsewhere, smartphone apps, interactive programs and tracking tools are helping people assess and manage their physical, mental, emotional and financial wellbeing. For instance, there are financial-wellness platforms that offer online learning programs teaching employees how to be more money-savvy.

As our reliance on technology grows, interoperability becomes even more critical as well. Earlier this year, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released final rules addressing several provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, including interoperability. The goal was to ensure patient access to their personal health information, but the rules offer little guidelines on how to handle situations where these individuals exhibited cognitive impairments like dementia.

While interoperability is on the back burner temporarily, expect it to make a comeback in the coming months. The pandemic elevated not only our need for interoperability, but also an understanding and what it’s going to look like as we press on. There will likely be additional efforts to determine how data — county, state and national — can and should be integrated, and there will need to be ways to enable facilities to transmit all data without manual manipulation. COVID-19 pushed these issues to the forefront.

Now, what all of this means for the quality-payment equation is yet to be seen. However, expect the government and health care systems to weigh the costs and benefits of new, more complex technology  as facilities, clinical leaders and care teams consider how they will accommodate efforts like telehealth carts that roll from room to room and ensure adequate bandwidth for a broader array of devices. We are entering a new era, and we all must pivot quicker, work flexibly, and think inventively. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a tragedy, but it also opened the door to innovative roles for technology in the “new normal” of long-term/post-acute care. It’s time we start walking through them.

Jenny Lee is regulatory affairs director for GPM Corp. She has more than 15 years of experience. After working for various specialty medical organizations, including the Brookings Institution, she joined the GPM team to ensure that all its technology solutions remain compliant in the ever-changing healthcare market.