Let me acknowledge at the start that I am not the first to declare the past year as “unusual” or “extraordinary.” We cannot emphasize enough that the COVID-19 pandemic is a global priority, and we have seen everyone scrambling to address this public health crisis. As I look back, and at the year ahead to what comes next, it is apparent that the past 10 years have been extraordinary.
A few of my colleagues weighed in recently on what the year ahead will bring in the health technology space. Charles Alessi, MD, chief clinical officer with HIMSS, stressed that we must remain optimistic that 2021 will be a year of “change and renewal,” and he sees more focus on “managing unwarranted variation” in care delivery. Technology can help us get there, first by measuring care delivery now, then using technology again to address those variances. We continue to see great use of technology by Davies Award winning systems, where risk stratification, for example, can be built into the clinical workflow, combined with social determinants, and used to communicate across the enterprise to improve care, reduce readmissions, and to improve patient and provider satisfaction. Little of this would be possible at scale if not for changes made in the last decade.
Robert Havasy, MS, senior director, connected health with HIMSS, raised a valid point about another change brought about by COVID-19. The speed with which we must put interventions into practice bypasses the traditional step of waiting for the results from clinical trials and their subsequent publication in academic journals. Physicians shared information about their experiences treating COVID-19 in near real time. None of this could be done without information and technology, and the dedicated professionals whose sworn duty is to protect the lives of individuals and, by extension, the health of the public.
Neil Patel, executive vice president of HIMSS and president of Healthbox, noted that while discretionary budgets will very likely remain limited this year, health systems will focus their innovation strategies on the horizon instead of on issues that are here right now. Issues of provider burnout and workforce mental health were only exacerbated during the pandemic; these are real, serious problems that will take time to fix. The only way to get out in front of them is to strategize for the future, but this will be hard, given the all-consuming task of addressing sustainability. Few organizations sit on a treasure chest of time and money.
HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf discusses 2020 and how it was the year of disruption with the HIMSS Italian Community on HIMSS TV.
There are also topics difficult to address, and forces acting upon healthcare that seem beyond our ability to control. It is easy to stay caught up in the demands of the everyday work of keeping a hospital, practice, or other facility running. Those of us working to make the most of information and technology in healthcare are frequently caught up in the policy, the technology, the barriers and, whenever possible, the successes. However, we must still consider what goes on outside of our quest for interoperability, lower costs, better outcomes, etc., as driven by technology.
As healthcare becomes digital, we gain the ability to pull back a bit and look at the bigger picture. We can start to think more about what can be done with the technology and, as Dr. Alessi pointed out, how we can direct its powers toward righting some of the imbalances in care. In the year ahead, we can really start to concentrate on improved satisfaction and lower costs. All of this will be thanks to the work already done, the capabilities we have built, and the longer-term view of what can and should be done.
The health sector doesn’t comprise a world unto itself however, and some big challenges lie in the year ahead. Healthcare is but one sector in a very complicated mess of interdependencies and influences. Events of the past few years reveal growing numbers of people who distrust science and government. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the spread of distrust even more widely. Technology works for whomever employs it: whether technology is used to spread disinformation or the truth, it can be shared instantaneously with the entire planet. Who then, holds the truth, and which institutions are responsible for ensuring it is perceived as such? Governments? Hospitals? Each of us? Is it a technology problem? One of policy? It is overwhelming to consider solutions to this problem.
As 2020 turned into 2021, despite a worsening pandemic, people around the world are continuing to ignore safety precautions while endangering themselves and those around them. The very concept of public health is under duress due to this trend. Can we even have a viable public health program if we have little respect for its purpose and intent? It is up to each of us this year and beyond, to maintain the integrity of what we do. We must continue to innovate technologies, processes and workflows to catch up, as well as get ahead. We must do this with tenacious integrity.
There will always be people who don’t see themselves as part of society, defying what science tells us to do. However, there will also be people who try to do the right thing by each other. And that’s why we work in healthcare. We must continue to identify new ways to use technology to advance our goal of better health, and we must at the same time do what we can to maintain healthcare’s integrity and value to society. Sometimes that comes in micro-steps, like helping others understand the difference between hypothesis and theory. Other times, we will step up as we have this past year to do everything we can to protect each other through science, information, technology, creativity, and sheer grit.
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