The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a wave of healthcare innovation that is still rippling through the sector. For instance, the increased adoption of virtual care has major policy implications—with Congress now weighing whether Medicare will continue paying for telehealth services after the current public health emergency declaration expires.
While telehealth is one of the most visible frontiers of healthcare innovation, the industry is poised to undergo another major shift that’s more hidden from public view. Virtual care delivery can offer increased convenience and accessibility for patients. But the larger challenge is laying a foundation for innovation in health systems that enables providers to optimize their workflows and collaborate more effectively—ultimately improving patient care.
The need for unified collaboration
Provider-centric workflow tools have been an overlooked area of innovation and adoption within many healthcare systems. In recent years, many hospitals have focused on centralizing technology platforms and consolidating their vendor relationships. At the same time, the trend toward acquiring hospitals and physician practices has exerted pressure to adopt scalable technology that systems can instantly deploy across new sites. The trend is fewer tools that can do more things—and serve as a single source of truth for on-site and distributed teams.
The pandemic has further highlighted the need for agile collaboration platforms that meet the urgent demands of healthcare employers—such as the need to quickly add new team members to accommodate a patient surge. At the height of the pandemic, many healthcare systems struggled to manage an influx of new team members and newly organized, multidisciplinary crisis response teams.
Many healthcare systems simply lacked the infrastructure to manage these demands efficiently. Hospitals have traditionally operated with a fragmented mix of digital and analog workflow and communication tools, from emails to paper calendars. While these tools serve a purpose, they have significant shortcomings when it comes to enabling providers to perform at their best. For instance, various email and scheduling tools can’t sync up with each other or adapt to rapidly changing information, such as a provider calling out.
Most communication tools also require team members to contact specific named individuals which can create delays in sending or receiving critical information when the named individual isn’t available or known. For example, the required individual could be “Charge Nurse on the ICU Floor” or the “Cardiologist on Call,” which can vary due to roles, shifts and more – so the clinical collaboration platform should accommodate this common scenario using role-based messaging. And finally, most communication tools aren’t designed for the unique needs of healthcare providers, such as strict requirements around maintaining patient privacy, regulatory compliance and rapid delivery of mission-critical information.
In many hospital systems, the focus of change has been implementing and customizing electronic health records (EHR) systems. At this stage of maturity, EHRs and other solutions have laid the groundwork for documentation and revenue cycle management. Now, healthcare systems are recognizing the need to lay a technology foundation for a vastly different, more provider-centric purpose: real-time communication and collaboration. Further innovation and adoption in this area will improve quality of care, patient outcomes and healthcare efficiency.
All these factors point to the need for unified communications as a service (UCaaS) solutions that integrate multiple communication channels on a cloud-based system. UCaaS tools built for healthcare specifically support clinical teams and their need for reliable, secure, intuitive collaboration.
Overcoming operational barriers to innovation
Enabling real-time information exchange and communication can pose a challenge to even the most future-oriented organizations. The first, critical step is aligning leadership to define what innovation looks like for their specific health system. This step requires leaders to cast a vision of what’s possible—while also making accommodations for what’s feasible. Hospitals need to make sacrifices when adopting a new platform, because software can’t offer every conceivable feature or functionality for every user across the system. But if teams are willing to give a little to lay a foundation, they can get a lot in return, while refining the solution over time.
Physician, nurse and IT leaders, along with other C-Suite members, should all be included in decision-making about which technology to implement. Engaging both clinical and IT stakeholders is critical to understanding the needs of each cohort, helping to ensure a smooth implementation and broad adoption among teams. The very notion of collaboration tools highlights the importance of the “care team” as a whole—representing multiple roles and specialties involved in patient care. Embracing this reality requires a radically different approach from siloed decision-making.
Along with broad leadership consensus, executing change requires a strong clinical champion at a high level in the organization. This champion must be dedicated to the project’s success, respected by peers and employees, and able to invest time into the launch.
Gaining system-wide acceptance for new technology requires leaders to address their employees’ established habits, knowledge—and perhaps even fears around learning a new system. The risk-averse mentality of healthcare can permeate an organization’s culture. Therefore, embracing innovation requires a top-down, inside-out approach, while putting clinicians’ needs front and center.
Because innovation always involves a learning curve, healthcare systems also need to proactively educate their teams on the best practices for using collaboration platforms. These platforms are best suited for real-time, actionable communication—for instance, a nurse consulting with a specialist about a patient’s status and the next steps in the care plan. By contrast, more administrative tasks may be better handled in the EHR or over email.
Collaboration tools can serve as a protective system for clinicians by reducing interruptions in their workflow. As opposed to pagers pinging with a wide variety of requests, a modern communication platform can chime different tones or vibrations based on the request’s urgency. Educating users on what’s appropriate to send on these platforms helps to ensure that the technology is serving them, not the other way around.
Finally, infrastructure limitations can create a hurdle for innovation. Before adopting any tech solutions, healthcare systems need to undertake a clinical workflow and IT discovery process. This process helps teams define current capacity and identify barriers in integration or adoption. For instance, teams need to understand their bandwidth limitations because VoIP calls require more bandwidth than text-based alerts. And deploying mobile apps in “bring your own device” environments will look different than when using employer-provided devices. Teams should assess their existing infrastructure to ensure it supports the foundation they are laying—and address any blockers in advance.
Continuing the trajectory of healthcare innovation relies on empowering clinicians to do their job more easily and efficiently—which can improve metrics such as provider engagement and satisfaction, patient outcomes, patient throughput and length of stay. Streamlining collaboration enables providers to deliver medical expertise with the fewest obstacles possible. Healthcare systems can also extend their collaboration tools to work more efficiently with community partners such as EMS and post-acute care facilities, improving continuity of care. Hospitals that are willing to embrace change and surmount operational barriers can transform their providers’ relationship to their work—ultimately improving care delivery and the patient experience.
Photo: Khanisorn Chaokla, Getty Images