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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a skyrocketing of telehealth services in the U.S. Along with that, the amount of data received and processed by hospitals and healthcare systems has grown exponentially.
All of this is placing pressure on the data infrastructure of many healthcare providers. Hospitals certainly try to stay current with technology in clinical settings. But the industry is not known to be cutting-edge when it comes to technology to support business operations.
“Data has always been a critical part of the health ecosystem. But this unprecedented increase is forcing hospitals and healthcare systems to rapidly implement new ways of capturing and storing data,” explains Kaushik Bhaumik, Ph.D., Ernst & Young LLP and is the EY Americas leader for health technology.
“Migrating to cloud systems, adding more data analysts on staff and ensuring system-wide interoperability are just a few of the ways healthcare systems are working to ensure these touchpoints knit together seamlessly,” Bhaumik explained.
EY has worked with a range of healthcare systems on these challenges, Bhaumik said. Efforts include the following:
- Addressing government interoperability mandates
- Tying patient treatment data to health outcomes
- Addressing emerging needs for health pricing transparency
The new data pressures are driven by the number of telehealth touchpoints. “Think all types of patient data, health records, follow-ups, etc.,” Bhaumik said. “All of these encounters need to be captured through data into what’s known as a longitudinal record to offer a more holistic view of the patient.”
The impact of telehealth on data infrastructure
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act compelled hospitals and health systems to implement data infrastructure investments to improve interoperability, Bhaumik said. These efforts have included:
- Creating a system for, and expanding the use of, electronic health records (EHRs).
- Implementing new cybersecurity measures.
- Hiring professionals who understand the intersection of information technology and healthcare.
“Under the Obama administration, patient records were required to be portable. Healthcare providers needed information to understand what is relevant for a particular health episode to ensure the right specialist and diagnoses were being given at the right time. This can be done by making data compatible across multiple systems,” Bhaumik stresses.
It was very difficult in the past to get patient information from different specialists, pharmacies, insurance providers, etc. Now, with connected and interoperable EHRs, this process is much easier, Bhaumik said.
Telehealth services skyrocket
It’s a good thing that the process is easier now. Since the start of the pandemic, the adoption of telehealth has skyrocketed. Some estimates project a 63-fold increase. As evidence, reported telehealth visits increased from approximately 840,000 in 2019 to more than 52.7 million in 2020.
Today, most health systems continue to see robust usage of telehealth services, whether through consultations or full telemedicine visits.
“Telehealth offers multiple benefits for patients and providers alike,” Bhaumik explained. “Since the early days of COVID-19, screening patients through video visits reduced the likelihood of in-office transmission. Today, with new coronavirus variants and the emerging monkeypox outbreak, telehealth continues to be a vital public health tool.”
Telehealth services can also reduce travel costs and wait times for patients. This provides a more convenient option for accessing care from home. Further, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, telehealth has been shown to improve on-time visit starts by 95% and reduce patients’ wait times by 60%, according to Bhaumik.
“Before the pandemic, telehealth was not as widespread. This was largely due to government regulations on providing healthcare across state lines,” Bhaumik said. “But during the last few years, these rules were suspended. If the government chooses to make these new practices permanent, it would ensure the long-term success of telehealth”.
Some policies are already being phased out. This includes certain Medicare reimbursements, Bhaumik notes. Once policies expire and new rules are implemented, the percentage of remote care is expected to be around 25% to 40%, he said.