COVID-19 brought countless changes to the world, but one that stands out is how the first year of the pandemic changed healthcare – everything from how providers interact with patients to the wholesale restructure of the business model.
All hospitals struggled to survive the onslaught of COVID-19 patients, but independent and rural facilities especially fell on hard times. Before the pandemic hit, one of four rural hospitals in the US was already at risk of closing; in 2020, a record 20 rural hospitals closed. The ones that remained in business had to cut other services and lay-off staff to stay afloat. With 60 million Americans depending on small hospitals, losing what might be the only healthcare facility in the county created its own health crisis.
Small hospitals weren't the only ones hurting. Large hospital systems also had to shut their doors to non-emergency cases. Of the emergency cases, there was a scramble to find a bed and a doctor. There was a massive call out nationally to bring hospital staff to COVID-19 hotspots.
It was clear that the status quo was not working. Like almost every other business, healthcare had to pivot quickly to a digital transformation.
Some of that was already in the works. Telehealth, for example, was already an option for patients, although, according to Mercer's 2020 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, only nine percent of those eligible used the service in 2019. That number rose to 14% in the first six months of 2020, with the rate of acceptance continuing to climb throughout the year.
Patients who were forced to adjust to Zoom calls for business and social purposes became more accepting of remote medical consultations. Also, the greater reliance on technology for virtually every other type of service or transaction opened the door for a higher comfort level with the digitization of hospital services. As more people were willing to use technology to augment their healthcare, hospital staff could focus more attention on patient care.
The pandemic brought other unexpected changes as well. Healthcare staff were forced to quickly find available beds not in hospitals across town, but in different states. Patients were being transported from one facility to another, and their healthcare data had to move seamlessly with them.
The accelerated demand for telehealth services, our increasing reliance on digital communication, and the need to manage patient information across different providers in different locations highlights something that is less talked about when it comes to digital transformation in healthcare – the importance of securely managing patient identities and data.
Digital transformation challenges in healthcare
As accepting as society becomes to the digital transformation in the healthcare sector, there are still a number of challenges to overcome. As the Harvard Business Review states:
Because virtual care is now part of the new normal, health systems must construct a sturdy, permanent bridge that includes organizational, financial, and clinical structures and processes.
That need for having a digital bridge to integrate electronic health records (EHR), insurance and financial data, and improved doctor-patient-hospital communications has become even more urgent in the last 18 months.
While patients want healthcare portals, EHR, and standardization of health data across the industry – as well as easy access to their own records – they are also growing increasingly aware of the importance of data privacy and security. They also want to be in charge of how they use the technology around their personal health information (PHI) – that is, have control of alerts and the choice between an app or a web platform.
At the same time, usability is vital. Consumers hesitate to use authentication factors if they are too cumbersome and hinder user expedience. This puts the onus on the healthcare IT department to offer a secure platform with multi-factor authentication that patients will use.
The hurdle in making all of this work smoothly is healthcare's network infrastructure. Hospital leadership may be in a hurry to add the technology that improves patient care, like IoT medical devices and web portals, but the risk is that they add technology without upgrading the architecture. An upgrade will take funding the hospital may not have; so does updating operating systems and software programs and offering training on new technology. Leaders need to make decisions about where they spend money, and they may decide that as long as employees and patients can access what they need, all is well. However, that risks leaving the network open to vulnerabilities and human error that can lead to cyberattacks and data breaches. The desire to modernize the digital landscape of the hospital could end up putting patient data and health at greater risk.
The most effective digital transformation is one that takes the time necessary to seamlessly integrate new technology with legacy systems. But COVID-19 changed the luxury of a methodical transformation. It demands moving faster to address the need for improved telehealth services and patient accessibility, but not so fast that security and privacy are ignored.
For the healthcare provider, the goal is to decrease the amount of patient data that is out there to reduce the risks. The first step is to look at how the network architecture can be simplified, such as moving to cloud platforms and using managed service providers to handle the software upgrades and to get a more scalable infrastructure. At the same time, patients want all of their information at their fingertips, and that means offering an app that they can easily access, one that allows them to see the results of their latest tests and login to their telehealth services. A biometric authentication option rather than a password keeps access secure and simple.
Inception Health is a team of US-based clinicians, engineers and healthcare professionals that is linking consumer needs with innovative technology solutions to support academic and community healthcare networks in the US. It is developing a blueprint for the right kind of digital transformation – one that offers a positive user experience and best security practices for both provider and patient. The BeyondID team, together with Okta, has been working with Inception Health on a cloud-based modern identity management infrastructure that includes:
- Single identity across all channels.
- Unified experience for the patients.
- Patient identities stored securely in a cloud-native platform.
- Universal access to all services – patients and workforce.
- Better security and identity best practices.
As a result, Inception Health is delivering a secure patient experience through a new identity portal that includes multiple points of access – including mobile – while seamlessly integrating it with their EHR system. This is one example of many in their digital and identity transformation.
COVID-19 created a new normal for the healthcare industry. What has now been provided for patients during the pandemic is going to be expected in 2022 and beyond. The new normal is meeting patient needs digitally. Healthcare providers need help from technology providers to support their digital transformation, ensuring that it is meeting both patient and provider needs efficiently and securely. Only then will they be able to maximize their opportunities for meeting today's virtual and digital care needs.