How the lessons learned from COVID-19 in 2020 will transform healthcare organisations in the future, writes Johnny Ong, Healthcare Practice Lead, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific
When the pandemic began, vital healthcare equipment and supplies were in short supply. Budgets quickly became strained as routine check-ups and elective procedures were halted or voluntarily delayed by patients, and practitioners had to quickly adapt to less-than-ideal care models to comply with new safety protocols.
Reportedly, despite these challenges, the pandemic has ironically helped improve India’s health infrastructure by pushing both the government and private sector to strengthen their services. In fact, the central government of India has already spent more than $40 million just on hospital equipment, while private hospitals have invested in large volumes of essential medical supplies and hospital infrastructure to create isolation and quarantine facilities. Though these expenditures were unplanned, they are already delivering benefits that extend far beyond COVID-19 response efforts. In fact, many of the technologies adopted in the past year are helping healthcare systems realise critical cost-savings, productivity benefits and improved clinicians’ care capabilities across all practices.
These advancements also promise to become mainstream after the pandemic is a distant memory, paving the way for more agile, responsive and quality-centred healthcare operations. Here are just some of the improvements you can expect in 2021 and beyond:
Focus on the supply chain
Even before the pandemic, supply chain inefficiencies cost hospitals more than $25.7 billion each year, according to an analysis from Guidehouse. The pandemic further exacerbated those shortcomings. Ventilators and basic supplies needed to keep patients and clinicians safe, such as hand sanitiser and personal protective equipment (PPE), were hard to come by.
According to media reports, in the wake of the pandemic, the central government of India launched a web-based solution for the healthcare supply chain portal ‘Aarogyapath’ to provide real-time availability of critical healthcare supplies for manufacturers, suppliers and customers. As we look forward, we are seeing hospitals increasingly embracing technologies such as barcodes, radio frequency identification (RFID) and real-time location systems (RTLS) to gain unprecedented visibility and control of their supply chain and inventory management systems. These visibility enhancements will also help hospitals reduce inventory waste due to unused and expired supplies.
Streamlining patient care
Beds also became a scarce resource at many hospitals, driving administrators and clinicians to collaboratively explore new ways to move patients through the system faster. One tool coming to the forefront is RTLS, which leverages any number of location technologies along with mobile computers to track and streamline multiple care actions throughout a patient’s stay, including around-the-clock patient monitoring. It has already proven highly effective in improving patient-turnaround times and hospital workflows, and there are several use cases that can be scaled quickly. RFID tags, for example, can be added to wheelchairs so that nurses can locate them quickly to speed up patient discharge.
In fact, research shows that technologies like RTLS can result in up to 50 per cent faster bed turnover times and as much as a three-hour reduction in the patient length of stay. In a 275-bedded hospital, cutting just four hours off the average hospital stay is the same as adding 10 new beds.
Making healthcare professionals’ jobs easier
Staff burnout became a huge issue in 2020 with hospital facilities and their clinicians struggling to keep up. One way to decrease burnout is to make key aspects of clinicians’ roles easier.
For example, purpose-built clinical smartphones that allow nurses and doctors to communicate better and streamline data-centric workflows can help reduce stress for providers while also improving patient care. At the same time, these devices help mitigate alarm fatigue by sending alerts directly to the right caregiver and providing access to a comprehensive patient history via the Electronic Health Record (EHR) to help inform care decisions. Nurses can use those same mobile devices to enter vitals directly into a patient’s EHR while at the bedside, thus reducing the amount of time they spend on charting and reducing errors.
Doctors and nurses armed with mobile devices can also be notified immediately when a patient’s test results are ready so that treatment decisions can be made and communicated quickly. It is no wonder surveys show that 97 per cent of bed-side nurses and 98 per cent of physicians foresee relying on mobile technology by 2022, suggest media reports.
Stemming the spread of infections
“Sanitise everything!” became a mantra in 2020 as COVID-19 continued to spread. However, the need for sanitisation in healthcare organisations has always been critical given that healthcare-acquired infections affect an estimated 1.7 million patients each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, in 2020, some hospitals found that their non-rugged devices could not withstand repeated cleaning and sanitising because they were not built with healthcare-grade plastics. In the future, we expect to see more hospitals adopt mobile computers, printers and hand-held scanners that are purpose-built to withstand repeated wipe downs with approved cleaning agents to reduce the spread of infection.
Telehealth will continue to grow
When telehealth became more accepted in 2020, some hospitals used technology to create “virtual doctors” by mounting rugged mobile tablets on IV poles that allowed specialists to interact with patients via video. Media reports reveal that in India, online consultation for healthcare increased by 500 per cent between 1st March to 31st May, 2020. During this period, about a million Indians accessed healthcare online with an average frequency of two online doctor consultations per month. Many hospitals found that this virtual solution resulted in a faster care for patients because specialists could handle multiple consults without wasting time travelling between rooms or hospitals. Going forward, more hospitals will rely heavily on virtual patient consultations for more efficient patient care while also keeping both patients and clinicians safe.
There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on healthcare. The good news is that these lessons learned will have a positive impact on the way healthcare facilities support both staff and patients and manage their inventory and workflows going forward.