A Pandemic Put a Spotlight on the Need to Change Healthcare: It’s On Us to Fix It

Physicians see first-hand the need to change healthcare

Geeta Nayyar, MD MBA, Chief Medical Officer, Greenway Health; a HIMSS Digital Influencer

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If the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that physicians and other clinicians show up when we need them most. While much of the nation shelters in place, doctors and nurses are working long, trying shifts in crowded hospitals. They’re fighting for patients, like they always have and always will.

But the coronavirus also spotlights terrifying flaws and a need to change healthcare. Our clinicians are saving lives in spite of personal protective equipment shortages, insufficient testing and tracing, and near-certain exposure to COVID-19. Healthcare professionals who get sick or die are paying the price for the country’s lack of pandemic preparedness.

The healthcare system’s shortcomings aren’t confined to this crisis. When the coronavirus subsides, maladies like physician burnout, sky-high costs and imperfect technology will remain. And when our national attention finally turns away from healthcare, there will likely be less opportunity and political will to fix what’s broken.

That’s why all stakeholders, including health information and technology leaders, must join forces now to change healthcare by building a better system—one that can properly care for patients, protect providers and carry us through the next crisis.

A Doctor’s Approach to Health IT

From the moment I entered the clinic, I fell in love with medicine. The opportunity to care for the sick, to solve life-threatening problems, was a privilege. In what other profession can you find such fulfillment?

I went into health IT because I wanted to continue to make that kind of impact but at scale. I continue to practice rheumatology, teach students and volunteer at a clinic in my community, but I found that technology could touch tens of thousands of patients almost immediately. I set my sights on user-friendly EHR systems, telemedicine platforms and any other number of advances that could push healthcare forward.

It’s all about helping and healing as many people the best we can.

To see that mission through and really change healthcare, we all need to come together and do two things:

  1. Help doctors and clinicians work and live at their best
  2. Fix the structural problems—from deficient technology to inadequate resources—that prevent them from doing that

That’s why I wake up eager to work every day, but I know that no single person or company can succeed in this fight alone.

Healthcare’s Many Challenges

Turn on the news and log in to social media right now, and you’re bound to see misinformation. And amid the worst pandemic in generations, misinformation can block the public from understanding that the same challenges facing physicians threaten everyone else. If this kind of disconnect is causing people to ignore social distancing guidelines and other protective measures now, imagine how well it fuels apathy in normal times.

The coronavirus also underscores the need for preventive medicine. Patients who are in good health are typically less susceptible to dying from COVID-19. But in health IT, the discussion around preventive medicine and value-based care remains aspirational. Too many leaders consider these ideals achievable only if we build the right technology or strike the right deals—only in the future. This overlooks the fact that preventive medicine and value-based care at scale will result in a stronger, more reliable healthcare system. Physicians and patients alike need that now more than ever.

Perhaps more than any other group, payers can propel healthcare toward a system focused on wellness over illness. The companies that cover our nation’s healthcare tab have tremendous say in which technologies, treatments and payment models reach the most patients and physicians. It shouldn’t have taken the COVID-19 pandemic to make telemedicine a widely used service, for example, but that’s what happened. And if payers don’t continue to support telemedicine, it might fall to the wayside after the crisis calms. High costs and a reluctance to embrace innovation place us all at unnecessary risk.

While healthcare’s problems are many, the key challenge is clear: It’s us. A stunning lack of collaboration pits potential partners against each other. Tech companies don’t often work with each other to share data and develop algorithms, even when the rest of the country would benefit from their work. Even as the coronavirus rages on, some healthcare facilities are not sharing data that could bolster the public health response, a trend that follows poor international communication among healthcare professionals since the outset of the coronavirus.

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Learn what organizations around the world are doing to test, triage and treat COVID-19 in the HIMSS COVID-19 Think Tank.

How Health IT Can Help Change Healthcare

How can we change our approach to healthcare? First, all stakeholders must work with patients, in sickness and in health, to push for innovation, education and the legislative and business change that supports it. We can build a better system by advocating for the use of telemedicine, more preventive medicine, and stronger supply chains and infrastructure. We can call for investments that will cost money upfront but could ultimately pay dividends as healthcare spend drops and care quality rises. Together, we can demand a healthcare system that works in times of peace and pandemic.

But what should we expect of health IT and the people who are on the front line of making change?

Collaboration

The industry should continue to encourage working groups among competitors to ensure the spread of vital information and the cooperation of bright minds to tackle healthcare’s problems—from pandemics and physician burnout to interoperability. A multidisciplinary task force should lead this effort, drawing upon our rich supply of smart, passionate innovators and clinicians. This proposal doesn’t mean we need to abandon competition—rather, it’s about laying the groundwork to come together when the problem requires unity. Further, we need structural market changes that incentivize this kind of cooperation.

Build Meaningful Partnerships with Physicians

Health IT market suppliers and healthcare organizations must make physician leadership and input a higher priority in innovative projects. No new technology stands a chance if physician voices are token or ignored altogether. We also need more agility. When a product doesn’t suit physician needs, don’t change the marketing—change the product.

Healthcare has made strides in advancing patient engagement, but now we need to establish incentives and build technologies that advance physician engagement. And to contribute, our physicians must be well. Health systems should get reimbursed for wellness programs, and vendors should continue to support these efforts. If our doctors aren’t at their best, they can’t do what’s best for the consumer.

Embrace AI and Interoperability

It’s unclear whether AI could’ve predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, but expert after expert argues that predictive technology can help in the response and may well forecast the next public health crisis. We need a form of interoperability that crosses industries and borders to better forecast and respond to pandemics and other major crises. The more we share data and the smarter we analyze it, the better off we’ll be. The technology to share and leverage data exists, but we need all stakeholders, from public health agencies and vendors to physicians and patients, to support their use.

How many horror stories have we heard from colleagues and friends or read in the news since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? If our healthcare professionals aren’t falling ill themselves, they’re going through unimaginable stress. Some are experiencing trauma that could carry lifelong effects. Patients, meanwhile, are trying, often in vain, to navigate a flawed healthcare system. As of this writing, more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. This is a pandemic that will leave almost no one unscathed.

Health systems might help change healthcare by building a system that’s more resilient, effective and accessible. But if that work doesn’t also appeal to every health IT innovator, it’s hard to imagine why any of us entered the space in the first place.

The views and opinions expressed in this content or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.

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