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How COVID-19 Accelerated the Digital Transformation of Healthcare

Transformation, innovation, and connection are three main healthcare principals that have been put under a microscope during COVID-19.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, three things were top-of-mind for Surescripts’ CEO, Tom Skelton: employee safety, ensuring the network remained operational, and adapting strategies to the evolution of technology. Because if there was one thing he knew for sure, it was the country wouldn’t come out of the pandemic thinking about healthcare the same way.

“Everything that we've done since then, from the way that we work, to the way we interact to the tools that we're making available to the market, have all been based on one of those three pillars,” Skelton said in an interview with EHRIntelligence.

“It started in February when it was pretty clear that this was getting serious and we haven't been together since then, which is now over six months, and we don't see that this is going to change a lot here in the next few months either.”

Before March, there was a general sense of transformation, innovation, and connection that's happening across the healthcare industry. Some of it occurred before the spread of COVID-19, but overall, the coronavirus was simply a catalyst that accelerated these three principals.

Take an individual with several chronic conditions planning to see a physician whose office is 45 minutes from her home, for example. That clinician offers her a telehealth visit, which as a result, saved an hour and a half of driving time, along with time in the waiting room. The individual is also getting the same quality of patient care from the comfort of her home, using this digitized platform, as she would have received in person.  

COVID-19 has largely sped up the digital transformation of healthcare and boosted innovation in how patients can receive and consume care. Those innovations are reflective of where technology has improved in other service sectors.

“The greatest example of that is contactless care, touchless healthcare, or just simple telemedicine,” Skelton continued. “There was a lot of technology already available in that area. We had email, we had chat, we had video conferencing, and we had cell phone photos. We've found a way to marry many of those, put them together, and get a completely different outcome for both patients and physicians.”

Skelton said the technological innovation stemming from COVID-19 is utilizing existing tools or standards and just repurposing them.

For example, the federal government put a coronavirus case reporting requirement in place.

“It's not good for the federal government to get that information by fax and it's not good for the health systems to have to fax it,” Skelton explained.

“They took a tool that we've all been using for a while, based on a clinical direct messaging protocol, and now we have over 2 million messages processed. It's a fabulous opportunity for all of us to take a look at innovations that we have built and things that we're working on and say, how do we make the most of those?”

Skelton and his team aimed to understand the needs of those at the federal and state level to assess which tools would be most helpful.

“When we're providing information to the physicians at the point of care, they're in a much better position to then interact directly on the topics that are most important to that patient, because they have a new and unique view of the history,” Skelton said.

But while Surescripts saw an increase in direct messaging and connections throughout the pandemic, the vendor faced challenges during the COVID-19 outbreak.

From Skelton’s point of view, connecting two health organizations is crucial during the pandemic, but making this connection poses a major risk during a time with vast innovation.

“That's what we try to make available to everybody,” he continued. “In healthcare that's not always easily done, because it takes a profound and unique knowledge of what is going on within the industry to help solve problems in a way that is good for the patient and the care provider.”

Surescripts worked to drive those connections across EHR technologies, pharmacy benefit managers, pharmacies, and providers.

“When we innovate that way as a connected alliance, we put ourselves into an environment where everybody in healthcare gets to fully apply their unique capabilities to their unique roles,” Skelton elucidated. “It puts us in a very strong position to deliver patient care in new and exciting ways. We're very excited about what we're seeing.”

If the technological advancements do not stick around after COVID-19 eventually fades away, the healthcare industry missed out on a giant opportunity.

“We're just very excited to see how the industry has embraced the challenge and is using digitization to get the appropriate outreach to patients and to give them access to the system,” said Skelton. “We're excited that our partners have moved so quickly in that world of innovation, because we think it's important for all Americans to get the care that they need.”

“If you look at where we are right now as an industry, there isn’t any question that a key trend, such as interoperability, is the biggest example in our world where some good things were going on,” concluded Skelton.  

“We had not only increasing use, but we had a lot of support, federal support, and state support to try and drive some of the new rules.”

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