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COVID-19 is accelerating the future of care. Here’s how.

COVID-19 is accelerating the future of care. Here’s how.

The American coronavirus crisis is only a few months old. But already, the pandemic is fundamentally reshaping our lives. Its blistering pace and dire consequences have forced every part of the economy to make some extraordinary concessions—healthcare, perhaps, most of all.

Whereas some aspects of life will resume as before once COVID-19 is behind us, many of the changes observed in the healthcare system are likely to endure.

The virus’s acuity has served as a catalyst for healthcare’s evolution. By exposing the industry’s vulnerabilities, and revealing a few new strengths, the coronavirus has accelerated trends that have been emerging for years.

Here are three industry-wide developments that COVID-19 has thrust into the spotlight.

  1. Healthcare at home

Given the recent strides of the digital age, widespread remote access to healthcare providers has long seemed like an idea whose time was nigh. If we can effortlessly video-conference with friends around the world, why not conduct primary-care appointments from our living rooms?

So far, the idea has not yet lived up to its potential. Consumer hesitation and regulatory hurdles kept telehealth from mass adoption. But thanks to the coronavirus, that may be changing.

On the consumer side, COVID-19 has spurred a massive surge in interest for remote healthcare services.

According to NRC Health’s research, 60% of patients currently believe it’s risky to visit any healthcare facility. This may explain why 71% of them say they’d be interested in phone calls as a substitute for in-person appointments, and 64% said the same of video-conference. These are unprecedented levels in the history of NRC Health’s consumer data.

For its part, the government is responding to the unique urgency of the situation. It has begun lifting hurdles that have hitherto held telehealth back. In March, for instance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved a slew of telehealth services for VA patients and patients on Medicare—a first in the agency’s history.

This dramatically expands what healthcare providers are able to offer these patients. For the first time, many of them will be able to receive the full range of a health system’s care capabilities, all from the comfort of their own homes.

Best of all, if properly conducted, these telehealth appointments needn’t diminish the patient experience. Though it will never quite replace the in-person encounter, a well-managed telehealth call can still be an empathetic and emotional experience for healthcare customers.  Want tips on how to implement telehealth at your organization? Join NRC Health on this webinar for ways in which leveraging patient ratings and reviews can drive awareness and demand for telehealth services.

  1. AI’s next frontier

The sheer scale of the coronavirus epidemic has pushed some health systems almost to the breaking point. With sudden, horrific urgency, COVID-19 has pressed health systems to rapidly expand their capacities and totally streamline their care processes. Many have turned to artificial intelligence (AI)–augmented technologies to assist them.

Though long a staple of clinical research and disease modeling, AI’s adoption had been a little slower in healthcare delivery. The coronavirus, however, has spurred a feverish pace of AI-related innovation.

Consider, for example, triage by chatbot. This relatively new technology is powered by Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms (which many health systems deploy in collecting patient feedback). These algorithms engage patients in a conversation via SMS or a smartphone app, and discern by the patient’s symptoms whether they’re a likely case of COVID-19. This has saved some hospitals in Germany hundreds of staff-hours in triaging patients.

AI is also beginning to assist in the broader management of intra-facility operational decision-making. Scarce supplies, few spare beds, and limited staffing have put enormous pressure on organizations to effectively allocate their resources.

AI-powered dashboards help leaders and frontline staff see, at a glance, which units have capacity to spare and which are under strain. This can help organization leaders guide admissions, arrange for float or temporary staff, and massively improve bed-utilization.

AI will also enable health systems to achieve what previously seemed impossible: mass customization. Using AI as a guiding hand, health systems will be able to stratify customers along psychographic axes, delivering experiences that resonate with each individual.

This capability will be all-important in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus. As the danger itself fades, public fears are likely to linger, and health systems will have to tread carefully to earn patients’ trust again. But with mass customization, leaders can be sure that they’re delivering an experience that measures up to even the most stringent of customer expectations.

  1. Connection and education

Aside from refashioning how healthcare organizations perform their work, COVID-19 also has healthcare leaders reconsidering what health systems ought to be.

In the age of social distancing, many consumers are looking to recover a lost sense of connection. They’re turning to providers for more than just help recovering from their ailments—they’re looking to organizations to help them rebuild their lives.

Some organizations, discerning this trend, have managed to stay ahead of the curve.

Allina Health, for example, is using telehealth and virtual screenings to develop and maintain more robust relationships with its customers while many of its doors remain closed due to COVID-19.   Additionally, several of NRC Health’s partners, including Nebraska Medicine, has made use of a post-discharge Transitions solution to ensure that 100% of their patients are contacted after their episodes of care.

Innovations like these expand health-system operations beyond the four walls of the hospital, reaching directly into customers’ lives. Less directly, health systems can also assert themselves as a positive presence in the community by becoming reliable sources for healthcare information.

The pandemic has accelerated this process by elevating trust in local healthcare providers. Organizations can make good on this trust both by developing online resources for consumers to consult, and by proactively connecting with customers according to their individual preferences.

These two tactics, already a part of many health systems’ strategic portfolios, are bound play a larger role in a post-coronavirus world.

What remains the same

The COVID-19–induced rate of change in the industry has been unnerving, to say the least. Understandably, some leaders and organizations will struggle to adapt.

However, all of the above-mentioned changes share something in common. They all hinge on taking a consumer-centric view of the marketplace, and meeting customers where they are. And they all show that it’s healthcare’s truly timeless principles—of service, of empathy, of human understanding—that will help health organizations persevere and thrive—even during a crisis.