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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed healthcare systems forever, and preparing for life after COVID has become a key element for every healthcare strategic plan in 2021 and beyond. As vaccination rates rise and infection rates slow, industry leaders are now asking themselves this critical question: What do we do now? 

A recent story published by The Wall Street Journal highlights that global business travel may see drastic shifts after the world has recovered, estimating that as much as 36% of the market won’t return as $120 billion is cut from corporate travel budgets. Healthcare organizations are among the many industries reevaluating their travel spending and after a year of reactionary spending, these cuts provide money desperately needed to stabilize infrastructure and operations. The critical decisions being made must toe the line between sacrificing and evolving.

Technology naturally streamlines business practices that were previously laborious and time wasters, as the global business community was transformed into a virtual infrastructure seemingly overnight. At the same time, streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have seen significant increases in use as people spend nights and weekends at home, avoiding restaurants, bars, clubs, movie theaters, and other community venues. As a result, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have struggled to keep up with market demands; by the end of June 2020, many ISPs reported that their expected data usage for the entire year had already been met. This impact has been felt by consumers, as ISPs have started to charge additional fees for unlimited plans.

Impact on patients receiving care

The human-social impact of COVID-19 is felt by all cultures and demographics. shared survey data from the US Census Bureau indicating more than a 300% increase in Americans experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression between December 2019 and December 2020. These astounding increases further strain America’s (now-virtual) mental healthcare system. 

Since the pandemic’s inception, critical healthcare providers have stayed on the forefront of virtual meeting services. In physical, mental, and behavioral health settings, making clinical services available to patients has never been more important. Additionally, using technology to enhance personal connection has been the cornerstone in maintaining care quality. As healthcare leaders meet the ever-changing needs of their patients, clients find themselves needing to embrace new digital platforms and professionals to find solutions to business travel that doesn’t involve airports, hotels, and conference rooms.

Offering behavioral health clinical support services digitally has had a positive impact on workforce and patient care alike. Chris Ferry, KidsPeace’s executive director of Pennsylvania community programs, reports seeing a significant decrease in missed outpatient appointments since shifting to virtual care.
No-show rates for adolescents in outpatient care at KidsPeace have historically fluctuated between 30 and 35%; thanks to the ease of access that virtual therapy offers, Ferry says that only 16-21% of appointments are missed since switching to digital. He notes that clients are more likely to attend virtual appointments because they can do so from the comfort of their bedroom instead of traveling to unfamiliar offices.

Impact on the healthcare system and professionals

Many seasoned healthcare professionals and legislators have been pleasantly surprised by the positive impact technology has had on direct-care systems. The benefits of telemedicine have shifted the long-term conversation around global best practices. The old adage that “in-person-care is the best care” has been counterbalanced by metrics such as attendance and retention. 

“We are seeing some states and insurance companies pledge to support telemedicine in the same ways and at the same rates as in-person visits,” says Leo Wentline, KidsPeace director of technology services. “This all but ensures that technology-delivered telehealth and telemedicine is here to stay.” Wentline also highlights organizational benefits from building a virtual infrastructure – such as enhanced work-life balance, reduced office-space costs, and more attractive employment opportunities for professionals who don’t want to relocate. All of these factors equate to two pivotal organizational outcomes: cost savings and improved quality of care.

In addition to improving patient engagement, technology utilization during the pandemic has also pushed forward those professionals who had been reluctant to embrace technology. “There is still a noticeable gap in computer literacy but the pandemic has forced people to become more familiar with their equipment and its functionality,” notes Spyglass Solutions Senior Consultant Bryan Facchiano. Adapting to technology out of necessity also improves efficiency as professionals begin to utilize existing resources that had previously appeared intimidating or too complex. We’re finally seeing the technology gap close.

Facchiano points out, for example, that organizations are starting to view technology as a more efficient financial investment than business travel. “Investing in technology to enable your employees to work from anywhere is a strategy to tap into your employees’ efficiency; making it convenient for our people to do their work remotely was a technology strategy that KidsPeace was working on prior to the pandemic.  That strategy enabled us to scale to the organization’s needs when the pandemic made working remotely a necessity, rather than an enabler. You need it for disaster recovery, but your employees will appreciate the convenience and flexibility to enable them to be more effective.” 

For many healthcare organizations, staffing is habitually the biggest challenge to providing care. By permanently enabling remote services, the pool of potential employees grows past geographic limitations. In January 2021, USA Today published a poll claiming that nearly 30% of professionals would quit their job if they were required to return to the office after the pandemic: “…some businesses and their workers may be on a collision course as life gradually returns to normal and employers start requiring staffers to come back to the mother ship,” according to Brian Kropp, chief of HR at Gartner Research, who added: “[Professionals] feel they should be able to decide where and when they work. And if they are not given that choice, some will look for other employers that do offer that. Flexibility over where they work will be viewed much like the way a 401k is viewed – as a basic component of the employment deal. Those who don’t offer it will have a harder time hiring and retaining employees.”

If 2020 tested our reflexes, then 2021 will test our flexibility. Healthcare organizations now need to take a fine-toothed comb through their best practices, patient care systems, and budgets to adapt and prepare for new expectations. These challenges are being faced throughout agencies; from human resources to information technology and direct care. Just like the 9/11 terror attacks changed the way Americans travel, the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way that Americans receive healthcare. Although we might be nearing the light at the end of the tunnel, the journey is far from over.

Benjamin Steefel

Benjamin Steefel, M.B.A., is Principal Consultant for Spyglass Solutions, a premier healthcare consulting and support agency. He has more than a decade of experience working in adolescent and young adult behavioral health and addictions care. Steefel has overseen development and implementation for programs and services across the treatment continuum, and has comprehensive experience partnering with key stakeholders within dynamic and complex agencies to exceed organizational goals and clinical benchmarks. He holds a Master’s of Business Administration degree and has earned certifications in addictions counseling, co-occurring disorders counseling, gambling addictions counseling, K-19 health teaching, and 9-12 social studies teaching.