MedCity Influencers

Protecting patients and staff while battling Covid-19

Management of this healthcare crisis requires an “all-hands-on-deck” approach from every member of the organization, including the entire C-suite.

After years of practice drills, live enactments, and crisis planning, we are battling the most significant public health emergency of our generation. Even the logistical preparation could not have prepared us for the many ways Covid-19 has disrupted healthcare—and our lives.

As a former hospital CIO, I know well that healthcare leaders prioritize employee and patient safety above all else. In many parts of our nation, our frontline physicians, nurses, and other care team members have been overwhelmed with surging patient loads, equipment shortages, and high infection-exposure risks that are taking a heavy physical and emotional toll. They have responded by rapidly changing clinical workflows, implementing new processes, and adopting technologies like telehealth to maintain efficient operations and minimize infection risks for staff and patients.

Management of this healthcare crisis requires an “all-hands-on-deck” approach from every member of the organization, including the entire C-suite. CIOs and technologists, in particular, play a critical role in supporting social distancing strategies that still ensure effective communication and collaboration among care team members, whether they are working in the hospital, in an ambulance, or at home remotely.

Supporting a Remote Workforce
Care collaboration technology that includes new secure telehealth tools, texting, emails, and other forms of communication can let people work from virtually anywhere. Most everyone has a smartphone and access to the internet. Allowing, and even encouraging, non-frontline personnel to work from home as much as possible can help to minimize coronavirus exposure and improve patient safety, now and in the weeks and months ahead.

Better Coordination Strategies on the Ground
Mobile solutions such as secure texting and secure real-time video capabilities enable paramedics and other emergency medical services personnel to communicate directly with emergency room (ER) doctors from the field, including from patients’ homes. Theses exchanges help ER doctors better prepare to care for patients upon their arrival and can help determine which patients truly need emergency care. Remote triage with ER staff can also keep patients who may be infected with a mild case of Covid-19 safely at home and out of overwhelmed ERs.

Reducing Exposure in Long-Term Care Settings
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities are especially vulnerable to the spread of contagious illness—and the highly infectious Covid-19 is no exception. Virtual care solutions, especially telehealth, can be especially helpful in these settings, which often do not have a physician onsite. Telehealth can enable doctors to deliver routine care for patients remotely, which can help many people, especially those with limited mobility or increased risk for severe illness if exposed to Covid-19. Doctors can continue to care for patients diagnosed with the novel coronavirus remotely if in-person medical intervention is not required, lowering the risk of transmission to other patients and healthcare staff.

Taking Care of Frontline Clinicians
Unfortunately, healthcare workers are not immune to illness, especially when they are exposed continuously to infected patients. By mid-April, more than 9,200 U.S. providers had tested positive for Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These providers had to be quarantined, adding additional strain to health systems faced with limited medical staff amid the pandemic. With care collaboration technologies in place—including telehealth—quarantined providers have the option to continue triaging and treating patients remotely as long as they are able.

The Right Tools Matter
When considering communication tools to support care collaboration, healthcare leaders must make protecting privacy a top priority. Though the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and private insurers have temporarily relaxed some patient privacy restrictions, providers should never compromise the protection of patients’ health information by using tools such as Facetime and other social media apps.

Other important considerations include cost, ease of implementation and adoption, and usability. Telehealth and other secure communications tools don’t need to break the bank, but they do need to be easy for clinicians to adopt without extensive training. The technologies must also be simple for patients to use and not require cumbersome downloads or registration processes that cause users to abandon the process. Finally, solutions should be easy to integrate with organizations’ existing electronic health record (EHR) platforms.

As we continue to wage war against Covid-19, healthcare leaders will need to remain agile and make ongoing adjustments to protect the health and safety of patients and staff. By embracing the right technologies, health systems will be better armed to win the battle.

Photo: Feverpitched, Getty Images

Linda Fischer was a hospital CIO for 21 years before joining healthcare technology company DrFirst, where she is vice president of product strategy.

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