The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a wave of healthcare innovation, which is still spreading in the industry. For example, the increasing adoption of virtual medical care has significant policy implications-Congress is now weighing whether medical insurance will continue to pay for telemedicine services after the current public health emergency declaration expires.
Although telemedicine is one of the most obvious frontiers of healthcare innovation, the industry is ready to undergo another major shift that is more hidden from public view. Virtual care delivery can provide patients with more convenience and accessibility. But the bigger challenge is to lay the foundation for innovation in the health system, enabling providers to optimize their workflow and collaborate more effectively—and ultimately to improve patient care.
The need for unified collaboration
In many healthcare systems, provider-centric workflow tools have always been an overlooked area of innovation and adoption. In recent years, many hospitals have focused on concentrating technology platforms and consolidating supplier relationships. At the same time, the trend of acquiring hospitals and doctors’ clinics has put pressure on the adoption of scalable technologies that can be deployed on new sites immediately. The trend is that fewer tools can do more—and serve as a single source of truth for on-site and distributed teams.
The pandemic has further highlighted the need for an agile collaboration platform that meets the urgent needs of healthcare employers, such as the need to quickly add new team members to meet the surge in patient needs. At the height of the pandemic, many healthcare systems are struggling to manage the influx of new team members and newly formed multidisciplinary crisis response teams.
Many healthcare systems simply lack the infrastructure to effectively manage these needs. Traditionally, hospitals have used decentralized digital and analog workflows and communication tools (from email to paper calendars) to operate. Although these tools are purposeful, they have major flaws in enabling providers to perform at their best. For example, various email and scheduling tools cannot synchronize with each other or adapt to rapidly changing information, such as calls from providers.
Most communication tools also require team members to contact a specific designated person, which may delay sending or receiving critical information when the designated person is unavailable or unknown. For example, the required personnel may be the “responsible nurse on the ICU floor” or the “cardiologist on call”, which may vary by role, shift, etc.-so clinical collaboration platforms should use role-based messaging to adapt This common scenario. Finally, most communication tools are not designed for the unique needs of healthcare providers, such as strict requirements around maintaining patient privacy, regulatory compliance, and the rapid delivery of mission-critical information.
In many hospital systems, the focus of change is the implementation and customization of electronic health record (EHR) systems. At this maturity stage, EHR and other solutions lay the foundation for documentation and revenue cycle management. Now, the healthcare system recognizes the need to lay the technical foundation for a very different, more supplier-centric purpose: real-time communication and collaboration. Further innovation and adoption in this field will improve the quality of care, patient outcomes, and healthcare efficiency.
All these factors indicate the need for unified communications as a service (UCaaS) solutions that integrate multiple communication channels on cloud-based systems. UCaaS tools built for healthcare specifically support clinical teams and their needs for reliable, safe, and intuitive collaboration.
Overcoming operational barriers to innovation
Even for the most future-oriented organizations, achieving real-time information exchange and communication can be a challenge. The first key step is to adjust the leadership to define innovation for their specific health system. This step requires the leader to propose a vision for what may happen, while also making adjustments to what is feasible. Hospitals need to make sacrifices when adopting the new platform, because the software cannot provide every user in the system with all imaginable features or functions. But if the team is willing to pay a little to lay the foundation, they can get a lot of rewards while improving the solution over time.
Doctors, nurses, IT leaders, and other members of top management should all be involved in making decisions about which technology to implement. Involving clinical and IT stakeholders is critical to understanding the needs of each cohort and helps ensure smooth implementation and widespread adoption among teams. The concept of collaborative tools highlights the importance of the “nursing team” as a whole-representing the multiple roles and professions involved in patient care. Accepting this reality requires a very different approach from isolated decision-making.
In addition to broad leadership consensus, implementing change also requires strong clinical supporters at the middle and high levels of the organization. The champion must be committed to the success of the project, be respected by peers and employees, and be able to invest time in the launch.
Gaining system-wide acceptance of new technologies requires leaders to resolve employees’ established habits, knowledge—and possibly even fear of learning new systems. The risk aversion mentality of healthcare can permeate the organization’s culture. Therefore, embracing innovation requires a top-down, inside-out approach, while putting the needs of clinicians first.
Since innovation always involves a learning curve, healthcare systems also need to actively educate their teams on the best practices of using collaborative platforms. These platforms are best for real-time, actionable communication—for example, nurses consult with experts about the patient’s status and the next steps in the care plan. In contrast, it may be better to handle more administrative tasks in EHR or via email.
Collaboration tools can act as a protection system for clinicians by reducing interruptions in the workflow. Unlike a pager that sends out various requests, modern communication platforms can send out different tones or vibrations according to the urgency of the request. Educating users about what content is suitable for delivery on these platforms helps to ensure that the technology serves them, not the other way around.
Finally, infrastructure constraints may hinder innovation. Before adopting any technical solution, the healthcare system needs to go through the clinical workflow and IT discovery process. This process helps the team define current capacity and identify barriers to integration or adoption. For example, the team needs to understand their bandwidth limitations because VoIP calls require more bandwidth than text-based alerts. Deploying a mobile application in a “bring your own device” environment looks different than using an employer-provided device. The team should evaluate their existing infrastructure to ensure that it supports the foundation they are laying-and resolve any obstacles ahead of time.
Look to the future
The trajectory of continued healthcare innovation depends on enabling clinicians to do their jobs easier and more efficiently-which can improve metrics such as provider engagement and satisfaction, patient outcomes, patient throughput, and length of stay. Simplified collaboration enables suppliers to provide medical expertise with as few barriers as possible. The healthcare system can also extend its collaboration tools to more effectively collaborate with community partners (such as EMS and post-acute care facilities) to improve the continuity of care. Hospitals that are willing to accept change and overcome operational barriers can change the relationship between their providers and their jobs—and ultimately improve the care service and patient experience.
Photo: Khanisorn Chaokla, Getty Images