The feasibility of remote work in the healthcare sector was put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple medical institutions allowing a number of their staff to work remotely in order to minimise the risk of infection.
With many of these institutions still largely able to provide care without compromising on quality, it would be fair to say that the remote work model has safely passed the test.
Given its many benefits – highlighted in this paper by Siemens Healthineers – there is an argument to be made for healthcare staff being allowed to continue working remotely, even as more countries begin transitioning towards an endemic COVID-19.
It is a scenario that Dr Jeffrey Staples, Chief Operating Officer of Metro Pacific Hospitals, believes could become reality, as he explained: “There are certain departments within a hospital, like the finance, IT, administration, that can largely do their jobs remotely.
“In some ways, it’s more efficient, because you cut out the commute for these staff. In other ways, it’s less efficient, because you can’t have group meetings, and full engagement with multiple peers where you can talk easily and freely.
“So I think that yes, there’s going to be a fairly significant migration of non-frontline healthcare staff to remote work.”
However, Dr Staples insists there is still a need for “patient touchpoints” in hospitals, which makes remote working for frontliners an unlikely prospect.
“You have to look at healthcare workers in a couple of different ways – you have those workers directly involved in patient care, and then you have support workers, who are involved in the support systems for direct patient care, and then you have everybody else,” said Dr Staples.
“The people who are involved in direct patient care have to be there at the hospital. You need nurses to start IV lines, to draw blood, and to give medication. You still need doctors to be there physically to perform surgeries and operations.
“So, it remains essential for frontline healthcare staff to go to the hospitals to take care of people face to face.”
There are, however, some exceptions to this, with the radiology department, in particular, likely to adopt remote working in the long-term.
“Radiologists have been working digitally for many years now, and they’re only going to do it more,” Dr Staples mused. “This means they will progressively spend less time at the hospitals, and more time looking at home looking at their screens.
“The people who are engaged in support services for direct patient care – for example, those working in the laboratory and pharmacy – will also become less labour intensive as we automate more. But I think for the foreseeable future, we’re still going to need them in the hospitals.”
What next for the digital transformation of healthcare?
The advent of remote work was not the only new digital trend in the healthcare sector that was brought on by pandemic. Most healthcare providers now offer telehealth and virtual care services, while there has also been an increase in the use of robotics in hospitals, particularly in the areas of cleaning and disinfection.
What happens then, when COVID-19 finally becomes endemic? Will healthcare providers persist with these new digital trends?
According to Dr Staples, this will largely depend on the market in which these medical institutions operate in.
“You have to look at a couple of different factors. One is going to be the maturity of the healthcare system, which includes the physicians, and the other is going to be the maturity of the economy and patients,” Dr Staples elaborated.
“In more developed economies, where you have better infrastructure, where everybody’s interconnected, and you have a relative level of digital sophistication, it’s going to be much easier for that digital footprint to remain.
“In less developed economies, where you have fewer people who are digitally connected, it is going to be much harder to convert them to long-time digital patients, and they will largely revert to face to face consultations. They will still have a growing stream of digital, but they will remain far behind what the developed economies are able to achieve.”
Working towards an integrated health ecosystem
Nonetheless, the recent widespread adoption of new technologies within the global healthcare sector – which has traditionally been slow to embrace digitalisation – has been encouraging.
This has led to the introduction of remote monitoring devices that can allow patients to record and send their vitals, such as blood pressure, pulse rate and oxygen levels, to their clinical physicians at any time of the day.
As such, Dr Staples foresees that the future of digitalisation in healthcare will come in the form of fully integrated health systems.
“A fully integrated platform would include things like wellness, education, chronic disease management, chronic disease monitoring, and more importantly, a full integration with a physician’s electronic medical record,” said Dr Staples.
“Ideally, you’d have a platform like that, with all the pre-health information and dynamics…that also allows interaction between the physician and the healthcare system, as well as with patients’ employers and insurers.
“This will ultimately allow for ease of payment for episodes of care, and also allow insurance providers better understand their enrolled pool of members.”
Dr Staples, however, admitted that the implementation of fully-integrated health systems remains a vision for the distant future.
He said: “A fully integrated system is the vision of where things should be, but it’s extremely difficult to get there. There are a lot of moving parts, and it requires the integration of many disparate players.
“It’s much easier to talk about isolated episodes of care, or remote monitoring devices. When you talk about a fully-integrated spectrum, I think we’re still about 10, 20 years away from that reality.”
Dr Staples will be speaking at a panel discussion on remote work for healthcare professionals at HMA 2021 this September. To learn more from Dr Staples, as well as other esteemed speakers from the healthcare industry, click here to register for the conference today!