Guest Column | June 8, 2020

Leveraging Telehealth To Support The COVID-19 Crisis

By Drew Ivan, Lyniate

Telehealth Remote Clinical Trial

The COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly increased the use of virtual care as hospitals and health systems race to roll-out telehealth programs to limit exposure to the virus. To cite just one example illustrating the skyrocketing growth: telehealth vendor AmWell reported a 1,000 percent increase in telehealth visits since the pandemic, according to a May CNBC article. This urgent push to accelerate deployment of alternative modes of communication is essential to providing safe care, but it has not been without its challenges.

While many organizations had been gradually introducing virtual care tools before the pandemic, the unexpected acceleration of telehealth programs has exposed some severe shortcomings in health systems’ ability to support bidirectional data exchange. Provider organizations are struggling to efficiently connect with new entities, new locations, and new IT systems, making apparent the critical need for more robust fundamental interoperability infrastructure to support virtual care.

Increased demand for high-quality, high-bandwidth, bidirectional data exchange is driven by several pandemic-related issues. Hospitals and health systems need to connect in new ways with new entities like federal, state, and even global public health offices. While sharing information with public health systems always has been a requirement, many new data types are now in demand, and the volume and frequency of data exchange are increasing rapidly.

Many health systems are adding or allying with quickly deployed alternative care and testing locations, which have started popping up all over the country. From transforming gymnasiums and sports centers into temporary coronavirus triage centers, to drive through testing sites, the need for sharing data to and from these novel locations is ramping quickly.

Finally, the diversity of IT and communications systems being recruited to cope with the pandemic, both inside and outside the four walls of the hospital, is introducing a great deal of complexity to the interoperability challenges many organizations already struggled to meet before this crisis. Patient portals and apps, online prescription renewals and appointments, secure email to get in touch with their doctor, are just a few examples of the new or newly expanded program's hospital IT departments are struggling to integrate.

The unexpected urgency of telemedicine implementation is problematic given the fundamental role it is playing in facilitating patient care during the pandemic. Providers need the support of a strong IT infrastructure to accurately access and share patient health information from virtual care settings to these new organizations, entities, and IT systems.

Additionally, while the healthcare system has been preoccupied with the pandemic, much of the rest of the population’s healthcare needs have been put on hold, but that care can only be delayed for so long before it must come surging back. This makes it all the more necessary to have a strong infrastructure in place to support telemedicine.

Though there has been a lot of talk about FHIR initiatives, currently there is very little real practical application of that technology. Many vendors are currently unprepared to adequately support robust bidirectional data exchange and healthcare organizations should not wait for their vendors to meet those needs and requirements.

However, healthcare organizations and vendors have the technology available to them today to improve the interoperability of data across the healthcare continuum. The healthcare industry is currently at a crossroads when it comes to interoperability, and the coronavirus is making data exchange challenges even more obvious. To ensure providers can support and treat their patients, and effectively share data across the continuum of care, organizations should be giving serious consideration to implementing an interoperability layer.

Similarly, for vendors who are focused on supporting their provider-organization customers, they also will want to consider incorporating much more robust data integration capabilities into their products. To provide well-informed care, have the right technology in place (to easily share data bidirectionally between telehealth platforms, patient portals, EHRs, external testing technology, and more), can make all the difference.

The pandemic has emphasized the need for flexible information sharing across the healthcare landscape. As healthcare providers work to ensure patients are well-cared for amid this global health crisis, telemedicine tools have been established as vital to meaningfully managing the situation.

Beyond the need for telehealth tools, flexible information sharing is critical to healthcare, science, and medicine in understanding the virus and providing impactful solutions. Vendors and healthcare organizations must consider their vulnerabilities and determine where they must strengthen their organizations and products to better prepare for today’s crisis and the inevitable challenges of the future.

About The Author

Drew Ivan is Chief Product and Strategy Officer at Lyniate.