Technology as the Community Hospital Change Agent

The pandemic highlighted the need for better technology in healthcare systems. This article discusses how implementing new technology solutions revolutionized operations for one community hospital, what healthcare technology may be able to achieve in the future, and what hospitals can do to leverage technology now. 

Our community hospital deliberated for years on whether and how to implement telehealth in our ambulatory practices. It was as complicated as it was controversial. And then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020 and we rolled it out in three weeks. The urgency of the crisis enabled us to implement a major systems change that had stalled in the absence of such pressure.

Telehealth has been a roaring success for our hospital, providers, and patients. Its presence has freed up resources that we were able to use to battle the pandemic and treat more patients with the virus in the hospital. Telehealth has created flexibility for our providers and convenience for our patients. The idea of living without it is now unimaginable; telehealth is here to stay.

While telehealth felt revolutionary for our people, we know that this technology really just scratches the surface of what is possible over just the next few years. Major advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in our medical records and imaging platforms will transform the way our providers work and how our patients encounter the health care system.

We will work smarter, faster, and better as these technologies mature. Diagnoses will be accelerated and collaboration will vastly improve, not only within the hospital but across the provider landscape. Electronic Medical Record (EMR) systems will achieve a far greater measure of interoperability, which will pave the way for better sharing of patient information.

Where current systems provide a cacophony of alarms and warnings that create fatigue and serve as a distraction to busy providers, newer systems that we are on the cusp of implementing will deploy AI to help providers process all of the information in a patient’s chart, such as history from previous encounters, voluminous lab data, and historical imaging and documentation.

Under the current configuration of our EMR, providers are limited to the select data sets that we traditionally have within patient encounters. They are further constrained by set rules built within our ordering and documentation systems.

Advances in technology are essential in enabling our providers to work at their optimum level. Hospitals like ours will need to unlock these advances to stay competitive while meeting patient demands, particularly during peak periods – not just in a pandemic but also for seasonal surges.

Every generation of technology brings a new set of challenges. Community hospitals must be nimble in dealing with these challenges. Technology can continue to transform the community hospital, but its arrival needs to be facilitated and supported. Here are three things community hospitals can do to leverage new technology:

Create Permanence for Telehealth – Community hospitals will need to continue to use telehealth wherever possible. We know that some services simply won’t work virtually, but many office visits can and should be done using telehealth. This will require more than building capacity for telehealth. It will require advocacy to ensure continued coverage by insurers of telehealth services. This is not a given. Health plans and government – which funds care through Medicare and Medicaid – are already letting certain pandemic-era telehealth permissions expire. Hospital leaders will need to join together, working through their professional associations, to advocate for continuation of telehealth coverage.

Embrace 5G and AI – As more services are delivered virtually there will be more pressure on the networks that deliver data. Low bandwidth and frozen screens will not be acceptable as more services and even procedures are handled remotely. 5G networks will give hospitals the speed, reliability and security that they need and it will be vital to transition to 5G as soon as possible. AI is a game-changer in the way care is delivered, yet not every provider will be on board. Some providers will be fearful of delegating a task always done by humans to a machine. Such hesitance is natural, however, hospital leaders must be cheerleaders for this culture change, and that includes getting all employees to embrace technology.

Maximize Cybersecurity Vigilance – Many community hospitals have learned the hard way over the past decade about the steps that must be taken to keep data secure. Round-the-clock network monitoring is essential for hospitals as is the deployment of software that can detect and immediately flag system aberrations. Networks must be kept secure for providers and patients to have confidence in them. This is a test we cannot fail.

Our hospital’s experience in expanding telehealth at the outset of the pandemic has given us the confidence to adopt new technologies that can continue to transform our operations. It has also taught us that investing in technology is not an option; it is essential to our growth strategy.

Christine Schuster, RN, MBA, is President & CEO of Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass.


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