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To combat COVID-19, healthcare IT experts use what they have

Two healthcare systems share how they met the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. One lesson learned? Squeeze more value out of existing technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues, but healthcare IT experts are already taking stock of what worked during the spring and early summer months. One lesson learned: Use what you have.

At the virtual Meditech 2020 Physician and CIO Forum, healthcare IT experts, including CIOs and chief medical information officers (CMIOs), talked about how they managed to help build out services to handle the flood of testing and treatment brought on by COVID-19.

The healthcare IT experts, both of which are Meditech customers, shared three lessons learned that included relying on their IT staff, as well as leaning on existing technology and processes to meet the demands of COVID-19.

Maintain a strong IT team

At the beginning of the pandemic, Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, Ga., converted an older hospital that was sitting idle into a 75-bed hospital for COVID-19-positive patients in two weeks. The healthcare system was preparing for a predicted surge in the area.

William Sewell, M.D., CMIO at Phoebe Putney Health System, credits the healthcare system's strong team of IT and EHR experts for accomplishing the task in such a short period of time. The team was well versed in project management and operational experience, necessary skills for setting up a new hospital from scratch, as well as familiarizing new staff members with the health system's platforms, he said.

"Because we already had in-house project management and EHR expertise we were able to stand up an entire hospital in two weeks," Sewell said. "If you're changing locations or setting up new locations, you've got to have experienced people who are able to do that, but they've also got to be able to do it on a moment's notice."

Phoebe Putney's CIO Jesse Diaz said a strong team was critical in setting up the IT infrastructure in a new hospital, as well as managing that infrastructure for providers at home so that they could continue to treat patients. Like most healthcare systems, Phoebe Putney's senior leadership decided that clinical staff would work from home early on in the pandemic, according to Diaz.

"We had our senior leadership making quick decisions, and we had to respond very quickly," he said. "We were fortunate we had a strong IT team here because everything is IT. Everything works on that platform and the clinical folks are dependent on it. We can't keep them waiting or it affects patient care."

Lean on existing systems

Southlake Regional Health Centre in Ontario, a 400-bed hospital, was seeing 300 to 500 patients per day for COVID-19 testing during the height of the pandemic.

The health system's CIO Sam Fielding said testing was only one part of the equation. The health system also had to figure out how to get patients their test results quickly and efficiently. Rather than build a brand-new delivery system, Fielding encouraged healthcare IT experts to seek out preexisting processes. Southlake Regional's IT department, for example, turned to its patient portal as a possible solution.

The health system had launched its patient portal last year, which gave patients online access to appointments, lab results, provider notes and other health data. However, it saw low patient adoption numbers after the launch, according to Fielding. The pandemic changed that, providing a massive surge in patient interest.

"That piece was there and ready to go, it just needed that true driver to send it through the roof," Fielding said. "That was a big saving grace."

Make use of existing tools

A few years ago, Southlake Regional Health Centre's IT department added new features to its EHR in response to the Ebola outbreak. One such tool was a surveillance module, an analytics tool that assesses patient data and automatically identifies patients who need attention.

A lot of those pieces were in place, like the surveillance module, but we had not yet implemented it.
Sam FieldingCIO, Southlake Regional Health Centre

However, due to budget restraints, the surveillance module was never deployed. That changed with the pandemic, according to Fielding. He said the healthcare system activated the surveillance module and also completed a reassessment of potentially useful EHR tools that had remained inactive. Fielding said, while the healthcare system could have opted to pursue new products, established EHR integrations and tools took priority.

"A lot of those pieces were in place, like the surveillance module, but we had not yet implemented it," Fielding said. "Now, we're coming out of this re-looking at all the modules we hadn't deployed and looking at what will give us the biggest benefit in the short term."

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