As the vaccine is being distributed, there may be lights at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, but local hospital leaders say improvements in telecommuting and telemedicine accelerated by the pandemic are not going anywhere.
“I guess healthcare will be transformed forever,” said Saima Aftab, vice president of strategic initiatives and head of pediatric specialists, Department of Neonatology at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
Nicklaus, she said, saw a 9,000% increase in telehealth visits this year – from just a few hundred prepandemics to over 30,000.
“Telemedicine is amazing,” said JD Suarez, chief medical officer at Westchester General Hospital.
The popularity of virtual visits, said Dr. Aftab, opens up a whole range of possibilities and provides exciting possibilities in patient care. For example, she said, virtual meetings allow doctors to make assessments at home, such as checking a child’s sleeping area to make sure it is safe, without leaving the office at all. And for parents of children with special needs who may need special accommodation to come to the hospital, she said, that changes the game.
Rather, she said, many parents would have to take a full day off to bring 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 logins can be done virtually and more often. For the purposes of chronic care, she said, telemedicine is becoming an important part of the care model.
Increased ability to perform virtual visits, said Dr. Aftab, also makes medical care more affordable because doctors can shortlist patients for a virtual visit in case of absence, while a face-to-face meeting may be difficult to slip into a narrow time frame. In addition, she said, virtual visits can be used to extend reach to schoolchildren, especially those who might not otherwise have access to health care.
Covid, she said, “unveiled the armor of the health care system” and highlighted differences in access to health care that negatively affect minority groups.
“Talks about diversity have become the most important,” she said. “It’s important for all health systems to dive deep into how we can be sure to provide fair and high-quality care to all our patients.”
Nicklaus, said Dr. Aftab 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 a major trait for reaching children in meetings such as mental health or dental checkups.
Nicklaus, she said, has been using telehealth for this purpose since 2016, boasting a partnership with 69 Title I schools.
In addition to telemedicine, said Dr. Aftab, teleworking will provide increased efficiency to many healthcare professionals.
Administrators and employees who do not need to physically communicate with patients or colleagues, said Dr. Suarez, will probably get a chance to continue working from home.
“Many of our support departments have become virtual,” said Dr. Aftab. “So, we will have to reconsider the need for so much personal presence for a lot of our support staff. And I think this is exciting because it opens up more real estate on our main patient care campus. “
Administrators who would like to enter the office, she added, will still be able to do so, potentially through a shared workspace model that allows them to book a desk in advance.
“We’ve achieved great efficiency with people who don’t have to travel to work.” Still, she said, moving to the internet is unlikely to cost Nicklaus employees their positions.
“We’re looking for happier employees,” she said, “no less employees.”