Two years after the pandemic, governments around the world have begun easing social distancing policies. However, healthcare systems continue to be hit hard by persistent infections and a growing backlog of patients waiting for scheduled treatments.
While vaccines have been very successful in reducing hospitalizations and death rates, infection control policies continue to impact our hospitals’ regular operations. In many ways, COVID-19 made for a perfect storm. It came at a time when many health care systems were already under severe strain, faced with an increasing burden of disease from an aging population and a chronic shortage of staff.
The pandemic has halted most non-emergency elective procedures and outpatient care; as a result, the care backlog increased. In England alone, 6 million people were waiting for treatment at the end of December 2021. An estimated 8 million people have undiagnosed conditions, and these are the people who stayed away from their health care providers for fear of contracting COVID-19.1 The situation is similar in Europe and North America, with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reporting that significant numbers of people with long-term conditions are missing essential aspects of their care.2
They say “necessity is the mother of innovation”, which was clearly the case during the pandemic. Rapid vaccine development, new use of drugs to treat infected patients and massive acceleration of virtual care paint a picture of innovation. After the pandemic, some commentators are suggesting that this innovation should continue the recovery, giving countries a unique opportunity to change things for the better, tackle health inequalities and increase sustainability.3
From a technology perspective, healthcare providers can use the lessons learned during the pandemic. They can implement new ways to accelerate the flow of patients from their backlog to treatment and then to rapid discharge and rehabilitation.
At each stage of this journey, regular patient contact is critical to the success of the entire process. In many ways, the operational complexity of backlog management, clinical capacity, and workforce schedules reflects the complexity and interdependencies of the underlying technical infrastructure. To ensure that patients flow quickly through the system, every gear in that system must work flawlessly at all times.
By adopting a cross-architecture view of their IT infrastructure and a platform approach, healthcare providers can accelerate their digital capabilities, automate patient outreach through technology and self-service, and increase the flow of patients across the healthcare continuum.4
From a patient perspective, healthcare providers should deploy digital solutions that:
- Use the time before treatment to educate and inform patients about their condition5
- Monitor changes in conditions that may alter priority or treatment trajectory
- Collect pre-operative information and prepare patients for admission
- Streamline the hospital journey by tracking people and assets
- Reduce hospitalizations by allowing patients to go home as soon as they are medically healthy
- Prevent unnecessary readmission by providing post-acute care or remote monitoring
- Observe each stage of the digital journey to ensure it lives up to expectations
Eventually, the number of patients waiting for treatment will normalize when healthcare teams have the capacity to treat them. While automated processes and artificial intelligence enhance the skills of a healthcare professional, they will never replace the human touch. To address workforce challenges, healthcare providers must reshape clinical operations and adopt technology-driven processes that increase efficiency. This will reduce the pressure on the clinical staff and keep people within the healthcare profession.
Rapid innovation was commonplace at the height of the pandemic, with virtual care becoming the norm. Although the direct impact of the pandemic on society is now diminishing, there are now more people waiting for treatment than ever before. To overcome this gap, healthcare providers must continue to innovate, expand their digital offerings by investing in their underlying technical infrastructure, adopt a cross-architecture approach and ensure their digital solutions deliver a seamless experience for patients and staff.
- NHS backlog and waiting times in England
- Emerging from the COVID 19 crisis: Policy responses in the long-term care sector
- WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19
- The Platform Game: How to Operate as a Technology Company
- NHS Wait Well Programme