With vaccine distribution underway there may be a light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, but local hospital leaders say the improvements in teleworking and telemedicine accelerated by the pandemic aren’t going anywhere.
“I suspect healthcare is going to be transformed forever,” said Saima Aftab, vice president of strategic initiatives and pediatric specialists chief, Section of Neonatology at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
Nicklaus, she said, has seen a 9000% increase in telehealth visits this year – from just a few hundred pre-pandemic to over 30,000.
“Telemedicine is amazing,” said JD Suarez, chief medical officer at Westchester General Hospital.
The popularity of virtual visits, Dr. Aftab said, opens up a whole host of opportunities and allows for exciting possibilities in patient care. For example, she said, virtual appointments allow doctors to conduct in-home assessments, such as checking out a child’s sleeping space to make sure it’s safe, without ever leaving the office. And for parents of special needs children who may need special accommodations to come to the hospital, she said, it’s a game-changer.
Before, she said, many parents would need to take a full day off work to bring in a child, who would also have to miss school, for visits that could be as frequent as every two weeks. Now, she said, many of these routine check-ins can be done virtually and more frequently. For chronic care needs, she said, telemedicine is becoming an important part of the care model.
The increased ability to do virtual visits, Dr. Aftab said, also makes medical care more accessible as doctors can pull patients off a shortlist for a virtual visit in the case of a no-show, while an in-person appointment might be hard to slide into a tight time frame. Additionally, she said, virtual visits can be used to expand outreach to schoolchildren, especially those who might not otherwise have access to healthcare.
Covid, she said, has “exposed the chinks in the armor of the healthcare system” and highlighted disparities in healthcare access that are negatively affecting minority groups.
“Conversations around diversity have become paramount,” she said. “It’s important for all health systems to take a deep dive into how we can make sure we’re providing equitable and high quality care to all of our patients.”
Nicklaus, Dr. Aftab said, is currently working on training and “listening sessions” to find out how best to serve patients. Focusing on social determinants of health such as food insecurity, she said, is crucial, and school systems are the front lines for reaching children with appointments such as mental health or dental screenings.
Nicklaus, she said, has been leveraging telehealth for this purpose since 2016, boasting partnerships with 69 Title I schools.
Beyond telemedicine, Dr. Aftab said, telework will provide increased efficiency for many healthcare workers.
Administrators and employees who don’t need to communicate physically with patients or collegues, Dr. Suarez said, will probably be given the option to continue to work from home.
“A lot of our support departments have gone virtual,” Dr. Aftab said. “So we will need to re-evaluate the need to have so much in-person presence for a lot of our support staff. And I think this is exciting because it opens up more real estate on our main campus for patient care.”
Administrators who would like to come into the office, she added, will still be able to do so, potentially through a shared-workspace model that allows them to reserve a desk in advance.
“We’ve gained a lot of efficiency with people not having to commute.” Still, she said, the switch to online isn’t likely to cost any employees at Nicklaus their positions.
“We’re looking for happier employees,” she said, “not less employees.”