The past year brought the crucial nature of virtual care to the forefront. From mitigating the spread of the coronavirus to connecting isolated patients and providing care for non-COVID-19 patients, we have seen validation of telehealth under the most extreme circumstances as healthcare organizations face challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Telehealth is now a critical component of care delivery, not just a “nice-to-have.”
As we look ahead, virtual care will continue to lay the fundamental foundation needed to enable agile and effective care with the right clinician, at the right time, and in the right location for patients. Inpatient care is increasingly being imbued with virtual components that improve productivity, patient outcomes and provider experience. A growing range of patient engagements will employ a digital-first strategy designed to bring costs down, improve satisfaction, and make the entire experience more convenient for patients and caregivers alike. Telehealth will be reinforced with a new era of predictive tools and applications that augment the information available to improve overall outcomes.
Moving forward, the blending of artificial and augmented intelligence, home-based care, wearables and two-way video will advance digital care. The combination of these technologies into a comprehensive ecosystem will help providers improve care and outcomes across broader patient populations as they extend the hospital room outside of the physical facility and into patients’ homes.
First and foremost, virtual care continues to drive efficiency in inpatient care. Ongoing AI advancements will enhance clinical insight and enable care for more patients, in spite of challenges related to limited staff resources. Although artificial intelligence gets the bulk of the attention in healthcare innovation, we should not underestimate the importance of the human factor in the marriage of health IT and care delivery. Rather than refer to it as artificial intelligence, we prefer to focus on the concept that, in reality, it is augmented information. Investment in augmented information is an important steppingstone in complementing and enhancing existing clinical workflows. Nothing can replace a knowledgeable, experienced caregiver, but how much more effective can they be if we augment the information available to them? Continuous virtual observation of patients, data capture through wearables and access to predictive algorithms that can help providers anticipate conditions affecting patient outcomes will combine to improve care.
Accelerated use of telehealth to provide services to patients unable to visit their doctors during the pandemic proved that this is not only viable, but often the preferred option. As a result, hospitals are looking for additional ways to extend healthcare engagement into the patient home. While this has largely been pursued out of necessity in order to reach patients isolating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also fueled by evolving patient expectations around easier access to care. Virtual care models represent the modern-day equivalent of the home visit or house call of the past. Technology platforms and an array of connected devices will emerge to become permanent fixtures within homes. These solutions offer a cost-effective means for reducing some of the overhead commonly associated with hospital stays, as well as increased convenience and comfort for patients. Home-based care has the added advantage of minimizing exposure to infected patients by clinical staff.
The proliferation of internet of things, or IoT, devices and wearables will also have an impact in the coming years. Wearables such as smart watches, fitness trackers, biosensors, ECGs and blood pressure monitors represent some of the first in-home devices to approach ubiquity. Remote technologies that consistently measure and monitor patient vitals accelerate provider insight into patient risk factors. By proactively alerting care providers to warning signs, clinicians can intervene earlier to prevent adverse or catastrophic events—again offering patients the right care at the right time. These interactive devices can also encourage patients to make better health decisions in real time. The rise of these “digital medicine cabinet” technologies will unearth previously untapped avenues for providers to advance the shift from reactive care to more proactive, preventive medical interventions. Management of access to and the security of these devices will be paramount.
Presently, AI, home health and wearables each have had varied success in individual use cases but the real power and benefit will come from combining them into comprehensive ecosystems. Over the past year, utilization of telehealth reached incredible levels and established a new normal that is expected to remain after the pandemic is over. This is an ideal time for providers to optimize these technologies and prepare for growth. The care room of the future uses video-enabled care to drive operational efficiency, improve staff and patient safety, and reduce healthcare disparities.
Virtual care helped us deal more effectively with the pandemic and we have been given a glimpse of what the future of healthcare can be. The digital health revolution has begun and leveraging two-way video, wearables and augmented information will enable us to create a better patient experience, improve outcomes and be more prepared for the next challenge that might come. The benefits of virtual care were on full display in 2020 and as we move forward it is clear that there is no limit to how telehealth can positively impact the overall experience and outcomes across the entire healthcare continuum.
The views and opinions expressed in this content or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.
August 9-13, 2021
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