The Accelerated Paradigm Shift of Telehealth Due to COVID-19
-By Nicola Booton-Mander, Field Marketing Manager, GE Healthcare Digital
In 2018 only 1.57% of diagnostic procedures were read using teleradiology, and research predictions set this figure to increase slightly to 1.95% by 20241. However, this was before the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic surged across the globe in early 2020.
The enforced physical separation of people through the social distancing policies of COVID-19 has changed healthcare forever. Patient populations responded to the ‘stay at home’ message, reshaping healthcare communication channels almost overnight to ensure the delivery of ‘remote’ services with maximum infection control. ‘Working at home’ had never applied to the clinical specialities before, and what may have taken years to achieve through steering committees and business cases to move towards more virtual, interactive communication methods, happened almost instantly.
Today, US research suggests a 100% increase in telehealth demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic2. There are now great opportunities to reflect on rapid learnings and seize on the benefits of tele-technologies such as telehealth and teleradiology. We need to discuss how we can underpin new ways of working and scale reach with the right technology foundations. We also need to address the important questions of regulation regarding privacy and security.
The time is ripe for an upswing in teleradiology
Let’s take teleradiology. Even before COVID-19, the opportunities to be gained from transferring CT, MRI and other imaging modality images across sites or regions for reporting, in order to ease radiologist workforce shortages or for specialist review, were regularly discussed. Indeed, in the UK the NHS is establishing diagnostic imaging networks to enable radiologists to work collaboratively in consortiums across regions to help balance workloads. This will power remote working and drive operational and financial efficiencies.
Now, because of COVID-19, the imaging community has even more pressure to overcome backlogs from the stoppage of CT, MRI and breast screening programmes and get back to normal. Early reports in England3 suggest that patient waiting numbers for all procedures are likely to reach 9.8 million by the end of the year. The delays will also create more radiology pressures along the diagnostic pathway when it comes to review and reporting on cases. Perhaps then, it is also the right time for digital and deep learning tools to assist with clinical decision support and operational capacity or demand predictions?
COVID-19: a catalyst for greater digital collaboration
Cloud technologies propped up infrastructures across many industries during the COVID-19 crisis. The ability to work normally from anywhere ensured that European productivity didn’t grind to an absolute halt. Inside healthcare, the importance of having the complete picture of patient data in scaled up or pop-up COVID-19 pods has been magnified as best-in-class to ensure swift decision making. So just like in other industries, healthcare needs the infrastructure that can ensure uninterrupted workflow and interoperability to ensure the best possible outcomes, which in this case, is people’s lives.
Connecting patient data collaboratively is a key solution to existing and new healthcare challenges as we emerge from the shock of COVID-19. A joined-up approach that enables clinical teams to work together efficiently and seamlessly on patient cases will bring communities together and enhance standards of care.
Edison™ Datalogue™ Connect is one such solution. It includes ‘Case Exchange’ that helps reduce duplicate patient examinations, avoid unnecessary patient transfers and reduce costs by eliminating the need for CD based image referrals. This removes the silo approach to the clinical ecosystem by facilitating a clinical community to confer on patient cases, allow simultaneous access to patient images and collaboration on diagnosis and treatment plans.
Secondly, the ‘Multi-Disciplinary Team application’ enables the customisable scheduling of team meetings, sending invitations, preparing for the session with connectivity to PACS or Vendor Neutral Archives (VNA), plus the capturing of notes for post-meeting follow up.
‘Physician Access’ is the third element. This provides access to patient images and record data through role-based access protocols. It enables remote clinicians to see studies and reports as radiologists complete their reading, speeding up decision making times and strengthening referral relationships. Finally, ‘Patient Access’ enables patients to become involved in their care pathway giving them access to images and reports via a user friendly and password protected webpage for use on PC or mobile devices.
Embedding collaborative healthcare working into the future
In radiology, improving efficiency in the turnaround of diagnostic reports and finding the right specialist at the right time to interpret and diagnose the right images are the key challenges. If radiologists can read and report remotely, perhaps using cross-enterprise reporting, this frees up time and expands the geographic boundaries they can serve. This has a positive impact on patient diagnosis and follow-up.
Having COVID-19 thrown into the healthcare mix created shock and panic. And whilst it’s not over yet, it has also shone a spotlight on the needs of collaborative healthcare. It has created a paradigm shift in how we need to work to make the most of our valuable human resources, to cross physical boundaries, draw on bountiful data and be ready for whatever heath challenge the future may throw up next.
- ‘Teleradiology – World 2020’, Signify Research, May 2020.
- ‘Telehealth – A technology-based weapon in the war against the Coronavirus, 2020’, Frost & Sullivan, April 2020.
- ‘Getting the NHS back on track: Planning for the next phase of COVID-19’, NHS Confederation, June 2020. Statistics cited The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/10/nhs-hospital-waiting-lists-could-hit-10-million-in-england-this-year