By RANDY CARPENTER
The loss of lives and livelihoods from COVID-19 are almost too much to comprehend. And yet, slowly, conversations are emerging about the positives percolating from the pandemic.
It’s human nature to want to look for the positives in even the worst of situations, and I’ve noticed that in both my personal and my professional circles of late, people are talking about the things they hope we don’t lose when things go back to “normal.”
Chief among them, especially in my healthcare technology circles, is a level of humanity that our previously faster-paced lives, ways and organizations had perhaps too often and too easily dismissed. The humans on the frontline of care delivery, for example. The effects of social isolation on healthy people, much less those who are sick. The struggle and juggle of modern work-life balance. Inequalities in healthcare access and delivery.
We’ve long talked about technology’s ability to make some of these things easier, to close some of these gaps, but now we know just how possible they are when people, politics and policy unite in the face of a pandemic. We now know just how quickly even the largest and slowest-moving of health systems can change course and even course correct.
Until now, it’s been far easier to talk about the promise of technology, telemedicine and remote workforce scenarios than it was to actually deploy them. Because before, to deploy such solutions also meant loss; loss of control, loss of normalcy, loss of humanity. Until now.
Now, the very things that once seemed to threaten us are bringing us and our organizations closer together. They’re also shining a light on the hard facts about the real value (indeed, the necessity) of such soft skills as empathy, communication and human insight; skills that have never been more important nor more obvious in the deployment of technology, applications and people to deliver care.
Amid the recovery that we all hope is near, here are three things from which I hope we never recover:
Virtual Care Support and Delivery
Whether telemedicine, telehealth or the remote workforce, we’ve not merely crossed the chasm but bridged it, and I predict we’re here to stay.
Prior to COVID-19 less than 10% of healthcare visits were conducted with telehealth and/or telemedicine. That number is now estimated at 40% to 50%, and it’s unlikely that cat gets put back in the bag, nor should it.
Key enablers of this long-overdue trend have been changing reimbursement policies, the relaxing of regulations governing patient data and the ability of doctors to treat patients across state lines and platforms thanks to various state and federal licensure waivers.
Necessity, too, has relaxed the barriers to working remotely, which until now was relatively unheard of for large health systems with equally large corporate and back-office staff and campuses.
Back in my CIO days, I too was a believer in the importance of physical office presence. I wanted to see the 50-plus people on my service desk. It provided a comfort level that people were doing their jobs and doing them at the levels that I and our patients expected.
Being on the consulting side, though, I’ve completely changed by mind. The flexibility of being able to work remotely is a phenomenal perk, and I dare say that the thousands now working from home would agree with me that you actually find yourself working more hours, not fewer, than in an office environment.
Countless IT Service and Support Desks, one of which I serve on the advisory board, have been working remotely throughout the pandemic, and they’re doing yeoman’s work in the face of huge increases in IT support for health systems across the country deploying more and new solutions for patients, physicians and staff alike.
For context, telehealth-related calls for one organization at which I serve on the advisory board have jumped 29% during COVID, accounting for more than 30% of calls compared to just 1% pre-COVID. EMR-related calls jumped 54% for one health system client, mostly due to telehealth appointments being conducted through patient portals such as MyChart. We also saw monthly call volume for that same client nearly triple during COVID, with more than 11,500 calls in April alone.
Overall, we saw a jump in average call duration of more than 60% for telehealth-related calls.
This is likely another trend that continues along with more and more teams working remotely, especially with tech giants like Facebook and Google once again setting precedent. Both recently announced they would let employees continue to work from home for the rest of the year. If that kind of flexibility holds, we’ll likely see unprecedented movement among the tech workforce who may now be freer to pick their employer without the prospect of having to pick up their lives and move.
Which means pay, flexibility and, yes, communication, become increasingly important in recruiting and retaining the best tech development and support teams.
Communication with Feeling and Facts
To be fair, communications were probably pretty good in most health systems prior to COVID-19, but it was likely more periodic and in the form of an email from HR rather than the constant communications with teams like we’re seeing now.
Every employer in the healthcare arena should continue to focus on employee and stakeholder communication as we see this pandemic through, and indeed well beyond it. According to research from McKinsey & Company, “The overwhelming effects of a crisis strip leadership back to its most fundamental element: making a positive difference in people’s lives. By tuning inward to cultivate awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion, and then turning outward to comfort and address the concerns of stakeholders, leaders can exhibit individual care, build resilience, and position their organizations to positively reimagine a postcrisis future.”
Most people are hungry for solid, factual information and the more that can be disseminated to the organization the better. In fact, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer found that people have increasingly lost faith in traditional authority figures and institutions and have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.
When we demonstrate to our people and our patients that we understand their struggles and needs and that we trust them enough to share real, factual, meaningful information… as well as to work remotely and get the job done and done well… that’s when everyone wins.
There has been a dramatic shift in mentality about how and where people do their jobs as well as how and where they receive care. I’ve been heartened by the increased show of heart as we all navigate these uncharted waters.
I believe this uptick in empathy may, in fact, be COVID-19’s most meaningful consequence, and I believe empathic HIT has newfound intrinsic value. Here’s why.
Remember that dramatic increase in call volume and call duration that I mentioned earlier? Yeah, well guess why these calls are lasting longer. The Continuous Improvement Manager who supervises IT Support Desk teams at one organization I’m involved with tells me it’s because their people are focusing as much on the humans on the other end of the line and their holistic needs as they are on the reason they called in the first place.
Recently, one of this supervisor’s agents received a call from an elderly patient in her 80s whose husband had just passed away. To access his life insurance policy and cover funeral expenses, she needed to gather all sorts of health information, but she couldn’t access his medical records. Adding to her stress, she wasn’t particularly tech savvy. The agent helping her knew the patient was already traumatized to have lost her husband, and she knew it had to be heightened by the pandemic, so she was determined to help ease some of her stress. Instead of transferring her to another department – billing, medical records, insurance – the Support Desk agent stayed on the line with her for two and a half hours, helping her through every phone conversation with all of the right people to ensure she received everything she needed.
While a lengthy phone call may sound like a relatively simple task for some, it meant the world to the human on the other end. These are the kinds of soft skills that make technology work for us. Empathic HIT Support understands that it’s not just a numbers game or getting to the next call. Rather, it’s about being a voice of comfort and reason and being curious enough to ask the questions that lead to the right answers, connecting people with technology in ways that lead to access to care and healing.
I’ve been both proud and impressed with how our healthcare providers have responded to the challenges we’ve been presented these past few weeks and months. We’ve probably grossly over-engineered as many solutions as we’ve simplified, but that’s OK. Healthcare people in general don’t wait for solutions, they usually create them. They’re creative people who want to do good for their patients and their people. From this, may we never recover.
Randy Carpenter has over 30 years of experience in all aspects of Healthcare Information Technology (HIT) and is currently the Senior Vice President of the Executive Advisor Board at HCTec.