The COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, fostered the long-awaited technological breakthrough many healthcare advocates have been anticipating for years: the acceptance of telehealth and changes in regulation to fast-track and support virtual visits.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, is a pediatrician, entrepreneur, consultant and author, who has served as chief of digital innovation at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. While she celebrates the sudden embrace of remote sessions with physicians and specialists or the use of email and social media to keep connected, she also encourages providers to consider the human touch that’s still the biggest part of the doctor-patient experience.
“The COVID-19 pandemic brought on absolute necessity for change. In an unbelievably rapid time this past spring, we resurrected a philosophy that said we have to get to business and practice in a new way rather than taking three years to implement a telemedicine program,” she said in a recent episode of the MGMA insights podcast. “Some were stood up within a matter of days, which is emblematic to my experiences of working in health systems. But that really demands [that we ask], ‘what is our mission priority?’ What is the heart and soul of our organization?’”
A balancing act
After a decade and a half of personal experience attempting to promote the values of telemedicine, Swanson said providers across the country now have real-time experience with high-tech systems designed to keep their patients safe and happy. Learning the nuances to make that a valuable, long-term change requires a bit of acceptance on the part of medical professionals, she said.
“[When I started], there was always this concern that even the electronic health record on the computer in the exam room was taking away our ability to connect, to provide hands-on care, care that was deeply compassionate, accurate, timely and meaningful. There were lots of clinicians that were going against things like that. But I know that those who need help – patients and family or caregivers – and those who have help – doctors, nurses, phlebotomists – can have intimate connections in using digital technology. I know that from using Twitter to the masses, from using Facebook and from writing blogs and content.”
Swanson said the big test will be in the near future when the intensity of pandemic-related social distancing relaxes, and the medical community faces decisions on how deeply they will incorporate telemedicine into their permanent toolkit.
“Our freedoms will return to us in certain ways, when we have a more vaccinated population and we know better ways to take care of people. And when that comes back, do I want to choose a telehealth visit with my clinician, or are we going to see a surge of in-person demand?”
More than telemedicine, Swanson said the healthcare industry needs to consider the connected and ultimately profitable innovations consumer chains from Starbucks to Domino’s Pizza have made in providing fast and reliable virtual service. She’s even championed the use of voice-recognition devices such as Amazon Alexa to help streamline and personalize the patient experience in hospital waiting rooms.
“I think that the personalized aspects of this continue to demand openness and a chipping away at the paternity that still exists in healthcare – the idea that we as a system, me as doctor, deserve to kind of shepherd someone through the results in a certain way. Companies in the consumer space are trying to chip away at that, saying ‘systems aren’t going to own patient data, patients are going to own data.’”