The spike in telehealth services that occurred during the recent pandemic has been so sharp it’s almost hard to comprehend. Healthcare IT News reported that NYU Lagone Health, an academic medical center in Manhattan, saw a 638% increase in virtual urgent care visits and an astounding 4,345% increase in non-urgent virtual care visits between March 2 and April 14, 2020.
While this hospital was at the epicenter of the pandemic, their experience isn’t unique. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio-based Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which had only 19 virtual visits in all of 2019, performed more than 45,000 telehealth visits between March 1 and May 20, 2020.
While growth of this speed and magnitude is bound to stress almost any system, healthcare delivery networks have responded to these huge shifts in how care is delivered with agility, ingenuity and professionalism. Front line healthcare workers have rightly received praise for their heroic response to this crisis, but healthcare IT professionals also deserve recognition for their behind-the-scenes efforts to enable their hospitals and clinics to continue to serve their communities during this unprecedented time.
As demand for telehealth services begins to level off – albeit at historically high levels – these IT professionals won’t get much of a respite.
A New Frontier
Today there is almost universal agreement that the surge in telehealth services experienced during the pandemic marks a turning point in how healthcare will be delivered in the future. Usage of telehealth services will never return to pre-COVID levels, forcing continued evolution in the technology that supports these systems, the need for which will only be enhanced by complementary growth in patient monitoring technologies, IoMT and the emergence of 5G.
As CMS Administrator Seema Verma recently noted: “I think it's fair to say that the advent of telehealth has been just completely accelerated, that it’s taken this crisis to push us to a new frontier, but there's absolutely no going back."
The Role of the Healthcare IT
Adapting to these changes in the near and long-term will put more stress on healthcare IT networks – and the professionals who manage them.
The first step for many delivery networks will likely be fortifying and enhancing the systems pulled together during the crisis. Does the hospital have the bandwidth to support sustained, elevated demand for telehealth services? Are telehealth systems as integrated with the EHR and PACS systems as they need to be? Are they able to consistently deliver the quality and availability these services require to play a more significant role in patient care?
Addressing these questions requires careful evaluation of the existing infrastructure’s ability to meet the expanding demands of virtual and telehealth services including the impact loss of internet or power can have on the patient experience.
In many cases, aging infrastructure, particularly in distributed locations simply won’t be up to the challenge. Solutions will range from the relatively simple, such as adding compact uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) to mobile and desktop telehealth systems to the more significant, such as refreshing distributed infrastructure to support increased bandwidth requirements and handle higher data volumes.
As part of this evolution, edge computing will play an increasingly important role in healthcare delivery. The edge works with the cloud to provide local storage and processing to reduce data transmission requirements, speed data analytics and enable faster decision making. That could require healthcare closets, originally designed for telecommunications and more recently adapted to accommodate increased digitalization, to evolve into mini data centers, housing larger switches and routers and more powerful servers.
This is a demanding, but exciting time for healthcare IT professionals. The challenges of continuing to meet the short-term demand for telehealth while beginning the process of planning for a future in which telehealth moves from the margins to the center of healthcare delivery are formidable. At the same time, by managing that challenge, healthcare IT professionals will deliver extraordinary value to clinicians, patients and the delivery networks they support.
Vertiv is committed to providing a complete range of IT infrastructure systems to help ensure the scalability and reliability of healthcare technology systems. Vertiv will be exploring the impact of digitalization and telehealth on healthcare network closets in depth in a series of webinars we are hosting. To register, click here.