Does the Digital Health Ecosystem Leave Healthcare Thriving or Surviving?

August 7, 2023
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* This blog is part of the Digital Trends and Transformation series.

Virtual visits, wearable monitors, second opinions, and provider-to-provider consults are all part of the digital health ecosystem, a growing network of high-tech offerings designed to enhance access and provide the secondary benefit of reducing healthcare professionals’ stress and workloads.  

Electronic health offerings have become a billion-dollar business in the United States. Investments in U.S.-based digital health companies have increased from $1.1 billion in 2011 to $14 billion in 2020, according to an article in the journal npj Digital Medicine. But this statistic doesn’t tell you that while investments reached a whopping $29.1 billion in 2021, they more than halved in 2022.  

Here’s what we know: The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic shifted healthcare professionals to electronic platforms when possible. But years later, is the digital health ecosystem as thriving as it once was? Let’s look at a few key indicators to assess the trends and opportunities and what’s coming up next.  

Tracking the Trends

Although many areas in the digital health ecosystem exist as patient-facing technologies, these have a secondary effect on providers. With this in mind, we’ve narrowed the digital health sector into its four most significant impact points for healthcare professionals.  

Virtual Visits

During the pandemic, virtual visits allowed patients to access healthcare professionals across many disciplines—including primary care, mental healthcare, dermatology, and more. In the post-pandemic world, does the demand for telehealth remain? In a recent survey of healthcare leaders, an estimated 27% of medical groups expected the need for telehealth to increase moving forward, while another 28% reported that it would decrease. The remainder projected telehealth demand to stay the same.

Just as these survey results indicate, the future of telehealth isn’t completely clear because the post-pandemic world brings both challenges and opportunities. The opportunities include the public being more willing to embrace telehealth’s acceptable use as a replacement for face-to-face provider visits. One survey published in Becker’s Health Review found 80% of Americans believed they could receive the same level of care via remote healthcare platforms, compared to 43% in pre-pandemic surveys. Telecare also offers the ability to increase access to care for those who may otherwise have difficulty seeing a specialty medical expert or leaving their home.

The challenges include continued concerns over the security of protected health information when transmitted over a phone or the Internet, and the loss of rapport developed between patients and their healthcare professionals. However, research regarding patient attitudes toward telehealth has revealed the opportunity to engage in virtual visits with their established providers helps to foster patient loyalty.

Telehealth has given professionals a sort of “safety net” should another health crisis or worker shortage occur. Ideally, this added agility could enhance needed care for virtual visits and reduce patient and professional frustrations for in-person visits. The results can be less burnout for nurses and allied health professionals because of increased patient satisfaction.  

Key Takeaways: Telehealth can provide enhanced access to reduce patient influx in emergency departments, and new outlets for health professionals across all disciplines to use their skills to reach patients. The digital health sector must continue to seek ways to increase patient data security to help participants feel more strongly about their decision to participate in a digital visit.

Provider 2 Provider (P2P) E-Consults

“Curbside consultations” have been an informal P2P practice for years. Two healthcare professionals see each other in the hall (or meeting room or parking lot), and one asks the other about their opinion on a patient. Now, there is an additional option: the e-consult.  

Enhanced telehealth options have extended beyond provider-to-patient to expand P2P e-consult opportunities. The ability to engage in P2P e-consults has allowed providers in locations such as emergency departments, intensive care units, behavioral health, and trauma settings to have rapid consultations with other specialists about complex conditions.

Larger academic medical centers have started to build their e-consult capabilities. One case study regarding e-consults found they reduced the total costs for care by, on average, $82 per patient each month. In a survey on satisfaction with the e-consult program, 89% of providers reported they were “highly satisfied.”  

Rarely in the healthcare sector are costs reported to decrease, but this is the case for e-consults. Savings for patients can enhance patient satisfaction and the healthcare staff’s confidence in the care they give. Patients can take a more proactive approach to their healthcare since there’s less chance of extended waiting or travel times to see a specialist. Those often engaged in patient education and care, such as nursing and allied health staff, may find their patients are better informed on their condition and its day-to-day management. The result is less overall stress and a greater sense of control for nurses and allied health professionals.

Key Takeaways: Delayed access to medical diagnoses impacts healthcare professionals and patients. Patients can benefit from increased access to e-consults in academic institutions and specialty groups. Healthcare professionals benefit from patients who are more informed and engaged in chronic health conditions management. Because patients are ideally less sick, nursing interventions and education are more effective. Healthcare professionals can feel more satisfied with their work because they will see an increase in positive changes due to their efforts.  

Telepharmacy

While hospitals and healthcare organizations can staff their pharmacy based on an expected ratio, what happens if an influx of patients suddenly occurs or pharmacy needs accelerate during the overnight hours? That’s where telepharmacy comes in. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, telepharmacy meant clinical pharmacists could conduct some of the following tasks via secure telehealth platforms:

  • Medication reconciliation  
  • Reviewing patient charts to make recommendations on initiating, adjusting, or stopping the administration of certain medications
  • Verification of medication orders  

According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, a qualitative review of healthcare professionals’ experiences with telepharmacy during the pandemic revealed challenges and opportunities. On the challenges side, pharmacists who weren’t onsite could not understand and evaluate patients’ clinical changes in real-time. Communication was sometimes challenging, as onsite pharmacists would participate in clinical rounds while telepharmacists usually would not. This meant already-stretched healthcare professionals had to make additional calls.On the opportunities side, telepharmacy has allowed healthcare facilities to rapidly expand their pharmacy staff to meet growing patient needs.

Telepharmacy also plays a vital role in community health, where the closure of rural pharmacies has impacted access to medications. Telepharmacy staff includes a remote pharmacy tech and pharmacist to verify orders and provide consultations. But not all states in the U.S. have authorized telepharmacy for use at community pharmacies. According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, about half the states in the U.S. permit telepharmaceutical care.

Key Takeaways: In the post-pandemic era, telepharmacy has kept doors open in rural communities and made hospital-based pharmacies more agile. Staff have had to wait less time for reconciliation, allowing them to administer needed medications more quickly. Health professionals can also have patient medication safety questions answered sooner, speeding up care and reducing frustrations. While some communication challenges may exist, research studies have found that telecommunications are a safe alternative to a traditional pharmacy.

Second Opinions

Getting a second opinion can be time-consuming and challenging for patients. Digital health has expanded patient access to second opinions, which can lead to improved patient satisfaction and engagement in their care.One of the critical changes was the advent of electronic medical records. Having digital records, imaging scans, lab results, and more means that consulting providers can quickly and more thoroughly review a patient’s medical history while offering a second opinion.Many of the country’s largest healthcare systems (such as the Cleveland Clinic and New York-Presbyterian) offer fee-based second opinion services. However, restrictions may exist based on the patient’s state of residence.  

One study published in Surgical Opinions International found an estimated 40.6 visits to spine surgeons are to obtain a second opinion. Nearly 60% of neurosurgery second opinions do not match (discordance) the first opinion a patient receives. Of these opposite opinions, about 75% of the views recommend no surgery.

Expanding second opinions through telehealth platforms can lead to cost savings – for both patients and hospitals – by reducing unnecessary procedures. This can also reduce staff frustrations and streamline care. More time performing targeted procedures enhances patient and provider satisfaction, and trust in the healthcare system.  

Key Takeaways: An estimated one-third of those living in the United States don’t have access to primary care or specialty physicians. If having access to one physician is a challenge, having a second opinion can be even more difficult. Telehealth second opinions can improve care access. Healthcare professionals can then feel more confident that the support they provide is vital to the patient’s care.  

How HC Is Staying on Top of These Trends

Since 2004, Health Carousel has worked to improve healthcare staffing worldwide through recruiting, educating, and training healthcare professionals. To accomplish this, we must recognize the changes that impact how nursing care and, more globally, healthcare has and will change in the coming year. We’ve invested in academic healthcare platforms to help our professionals enhance their skill sets, and continue to evaluate the digital health landscape and the role we, our nurses, and allied health professionals play.  

To that end, our goal is to help transform the digital space with a continual feedback loop for our hospitals and healthcare systems. Driven by data, the information is targeted and real-time. Detailed reporting, analytics, and predictive analytics can forecast future staffing to help improve patient care and reduce reliance on premium labor. Clients can anticipate staffing needs and get healthcare professionals to the bedside sooner, which can further improve patient and staff satisfaction.

In the end, it’s impossible to completely predict where the digital realm is going and its impact on healthcare. Yet, while the future may be a mystery, it’s exciting to think about how technology will continue to improve lives and make healthcare work better for all.

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