The modern era that we live in has only one constant to it: change; a neverending series of uncertainties that all industries face and will continue to face. In such conditions, the resilience of business organizations becomes an essential trait to ensure sustainability (and survival) into the future. The Oxford English Dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”. With the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen that mere recovery and returning to business, as usual, is no longer enough for survival – we have experienced this in both our organizations and personal lives. What we took for granted just six months ago is no longer viable. To survive, we all had to reinvent our way of life and were encouraged (actually, forced) to finally take advantage of many existing technologies at our disposal.
In health care, resilience as a trait across the entire industry is even more crucial, given what we are responsible for, and the catastrophic consequences of even minor disruptions. To that effect, the value and critical role of various information technology (IT) tools during the initial response phase of the pandemic became very clear. We found digitized health care organizations with world-class technology partnerships responded to the shock of the pandemic faster and more effectively, while non-digitized organizations accelerated their plans towards full digitization.
The severity of the pandemic’s shock and curve impacted both the breadth and depth of technology utilization. For example, in Europe, where the pandemic curve was steep, we saw faster adoption and deeper understanding and exploitation of technology. The ‘pressure of the curve’ encouraged health care organizations to create the digital foundations and move farther into the innovative space of IT, like machine learning, to help better deal with the pandemic and soften the blow. On the other hand, where the shock was softer in the Middle East, we have seen relatively slower adoption to various technologies, but deeper reflections and extended time to plan and innovate for the long run. Generally, here or there, IT undoubtedly improved the resilience of health care organizations against uncertainties thrown their way.
Again, recoiling back to the pre-pandemic state is no longer enough to ensure the survival of health care organizations. Health care resilience in the face of shattering challenges needs to even go beyond renovation to true reinvention. It has always been Cerner’s core philosophy that health care is too important to stay the same, which seamlessly extends to our COVID-19 pandemic management approach that redefines resilience for the 21 century (particularly 2020!): Respond, Recover and Reimagine.
Respond: Resilience through world-class partnerships
The initial phase of responding to the pandemic was critical. Having strong IT foundations pre-pandemic proved to be one of the major influencing factors on the swiftness of the response. From Spain and the United Kingdom to the United Arab Emirates, Cerner clients were setting up field hospitals over weekends to cope with the sudden surge in required capacities – fully equipped facilities with fully digitized clinical workflows and well-trained clinical staff. Through the strong partnership with Cerner and its state-of-the-art solutions, those health care organizations were well prepared to respond to the unexpected shock. This is a testament not just to Cerner’s turnaround support, but also to our clients’ strategic thinking to act quickly when they have the right technologies at place.
Our strategic and operational partnerships with our clients even went beyond that urgent, reactive support. We actively collaborated with some of our governmental clients in the Middle East to develop and execute comprehensive digital strategies that covered every single venue in the continuum of care, from preventive medicine and mass screenings to institutional quarantines and critical care management. All on top of the strong foundations provided by our flagship solutions suite, Cerner Millennium®. Those solutions were also robust and flexible to encourage innovative approaches to new problems. For example, in order to extend COVID-19 screening and testing to wider groups of the population, one of our clients in the UAE launched multiple drive-through centers for testing that provided easy accessibility and new levels of comfort to the local community.
Recover: Technology-aided balancing of supply and demand
The momentum of increased reliance on and adoption of technology during the Response phase was carried over to the Recover phase, particularly to deal with a newer set of problems created by the pandemic. For instance, the continued pressure on health care resources across the world dealing with COVID-19 patients significantly reduced the care provided to everyone else. Children missing their required vaccines and cancer patients missing their chemotherapy sessions are just some examples of the catastrophic repercussions of the shock.
Nonetheless, while the reduced supply of health care services was clear and visible, the drop in the demand for the services was even deeper. Anecdotal evidence surfaced all around the world of patients with presumably serious conditions avoiding going to emergency departments, and surely the lockdown measures did not help to sustain the demand for minor and elective patient needs. In a recent report by McKinsey & Co., it was found that health services’ decline in demand was one of the biggest drops across all industries in a couple of European countries1. We have seen the same significant impact in the Middle East, where Cerner clients in the region experienced more than 50% and 60% drops in their outpatient visit and surgical cases, respectively, from the pre-pandemic levels.
Ramping up both sides, supply and demand, post-lockdown became the aim for health care organizations in many countries around the world. As the number of local COVID-19 cases started to drop, so did the pressure on health care resources and the supply of services. However, patients continued avoiding hospitals as much as possible.
Health care organizations were encouraged to look beyond the traditional approach, and this is where technology, once again, came to the rescue. Telemedicine, particularly virtual visits, bridged part of that demand gap and provided an alternative that some patients may prefer. Many health care organizations have even reported a complete shift towards virtual appointments, some as high as 70%2 of all their outpatient visits. These consequences of the pandemic stimulated health care policymakers, regulators, and payors to speed up the execution of their plans to recognize virtual visits as a legitimate health care delivery channel and keep up with the patient-supported, pandemic-initiated trends.
Yet, in several cases, letting patients know that virtual visits are a safer option provided to them was not enough reason to bring them in, especially those that suffer from chronic diseases and required continuous monitoring, so a more proactive, patient-focused and personalized approach was required. Population health, data analytics and patient engagement tools provided the perfect solution to this problem. They helped our clients identify vulnerable patient cohorts and proactively reach out to them through patient portals and other means with individually tailored messaging and clear objectives.
Additionally, predictive data models helped further balance supply and demand. For example, resurgence risk predictions and utilization forecasting helped – and continue to help – health care organizations plan ahead of time and ensure that they are well prepared for what might happen next.
Reimagine: A truly resilient health care industry
It feels like we woke up one day and suddenly realized that the future that we’ve been talking about all along is already here - it is just unfortunate that we needed a pandemic to get to this stage. Patient expectations are changing, and the industry needs to keep up with those changes. We are entering a new era of patient-led health care that is entirely driven by patient empowerment, convenience, and effectiveness of care, and powered by technology.
Although this blog does not intend to predict how health care will look tomorrow or suggest undiscovered technologies or care models, we are comfortable predicting the following: innovative health care organizations that take full advantage of available technologies today will not only survive the next shock but will thrive and disrupt their respective markets.
Just like telemedicine that has been around for some time but only considered as a shiny buzz word without real adoption, other technologies like big data, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and wearables do exist without real adoption. We only observe shy experiments here and there without real pick-up by the mainstream. This is the time to do so if we want to ensure a truly resilient industry that can thrive in the face of uncertainties and challenges.
Adopting to available technologies will make our pursuit of value-based care, population health management, and a holistic health care approach that goes beyond the four walls of our hospitals a reality. And the first step to getting there is keeping the COVID-19 technology adoption momentum going, and not losing steam by reverting to our old normal.
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