COVID-19 Shows IT Can Enable Healthcare Organizations to Make Rapid Strategic Shifts

Paula Anthony, an Advisor for Huntzinger, lead strategy for a 10-hospital system as the nation shifted focus during the pandemic.

Achieving change in healthcare is often compared to trying to adjust the course of the Queen Mary – it takes time and it’s really, really slow.

That analogy appears to have radically altered in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic threw down a gauntlet to healthcare organizations, and they were forced to respond quickly.

That’s the assessment of Paula Anthony, who has about 30 years of healthcare leadership experience, particularly focused on information technology. She’s serving as a Huntzinger Advisor and recently has been playing a lead strategy role for a 10-hospital system. From her position, she saw how her organization and others across the nation shifted focus as the pandemic rocked the nation.

“IT has irrevocably changed” for healthcare providers, she contends. Virtualization of clinical services was one of the most significant adaptations that IT was able to facilitate, she adds. “We did a lot of things quickly; now our challenge is to take those things and operationalize them, but remain agile in the face of an uncertain future.”

Anthony’s organization had a bit of a buffer as the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the coastal states in the U.S. first. “But it slammed us in June and July, and of course, we’re all experiencing it again,” she said. “It is humbling to watch an organization upend itself in terms of how it performs, shift care models, face the challenges of shutting down elective surgeries, and manage the loss of revenue generating activities, all while simultaneously reassuring its patients and employees.”

Employees of the system continue to show “overwhelming resilience” in dealing with a variety of crises, such as rapidly adjusting staffing models and going to extraordinary lengths to acquire personal protective equipment. The organization, as a whole, also proved to be nimble in adjusting patient loads among its facilities, working to keep patients near their homes or transfer them if necessary, as long as they could receive the right level of care. “That whole capacity management issue – we got really good at it really fast,” she says.

The organization also stood up incident command centers rapidly and made a push to capture as much data as possible related to testing and positivity rates, using it to look for trends and patterns in anticipating the impacts of the coronavirus. “Data is king and it has proven to be very valuable in helping us respond rapidly.”

Perhaps the system’s expansion of its digital front door services was the most dramatic course correction as it shifted to deal with COVID-19, Anthony says. “It was impressive how rapidly we could stand up telehealth when we really didn’t have a strong telehealth presence,” she adds. “All the regulatory and reimbursement-related issues that made it difficult went away, and clinicians and patients embraced new care delivery models very quickly.” And, digital services such as online scheduling and registration and virtual waiting rooms have likely changed the way we deliver services forever.

Communication to staff also has been an important component of managing the organization through the pandemic, Anthony noted. Supply and reagent shortages were among the challenges that needed solid organizational communications. “Where protocols are changing daily, you have to communicate to thousands of employees effectively and in real time. The consequences are significant when you need to keep everybody safe,” Anthony says.

These factors put additional pressure on IT departments. “All this couldn’t happen without an IT infrastructure that is nimble and running at the speed of light. They deployed solutions quickly and safely,” she adds.

“Healthcare employees are experts at responding to emergencies, but this has been going on for months, and there is no end in sight,” she says. The healthcare system expects continued pressure from additional surges, employees working remotely and the potential for social isolation, and continued evolution in care delivery models.

“The challenge for healthcare organizations, in general, is that their original 2020 strategies got blown up and shifted around,” she concludes. “Now, we need to rationalize what we did this past year into a strategy that’s both responsive and sustainable.”