COVID-19 Pandemic Exposes Vulnerabilities in Healthcare Organizations (Part 3)

As a refresher for those following this series, we have evaluated various vulnerability areas that healthcare services organizations have identified throughout 2020 since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, nearing the end of this unique and volatile year, organizations have gained significant experience dealing with unforeseen challenges. Most would likely agree that we can expect such challenges to continue as we launch into 2021. And for many organizations, we have moved on from looking beyond and are focused on the future. However, to do that most effectively, we have to take the lessons we have learned from the craziness of 2020 and use those lessons to fill the gaps uncovered from these challenges.In the first article of this series, we addressed gaps in financial planning and management that have been exposed during this year of volatility. In the second edition, we looked at how the unexpected impact of a crisis like we have seen in 2020 can expose weaknesses in organizations’ technology systems and inadequate compliance, which can result in a large degree of exposure. In this final edition, we want to consider how this crisis has impacted healthcare provider organizations regarding their operations and people. Moreover, it is essential to consider how some of these weaknesses can negatively impact organizations and how such challenges can impact patients, specifically through patient access.

Episode 3: Weaknesses in Operations, Staffing, and Patient Access

At Coker, we have a dedicated practice group that specializes in operational improvement and efficiency. Our team started to notice early on in the pandemic-related volatility how many organizations – both practices and hospitals – were slow to adjust in many cases. Now, this is not an indictment on any organization, because let’s face it, we all found ourselves in a state of reactive chaos during the early months of the COVID crisis. However, it is no surprise that those organizations that were already running at efficient levels ultimately had more flexibility to adjust as needed during the continually changing environment of those days.

There were several key characteristics that our team noticed these nimble, efficient organizations had in place to allow for more flexibility when adjustment was required. As we have pointed out before, one of these was the ability to rely upon existing telehealth services that many organizations had put into place before the pandemic. While very few (if any) groups continued without any disruption, those that had telehealth resources in place were able to make rapid adjustments, which ultimately prevented significant negative impacts on patient access. For organizations that did not have such technology and protocols in place, they had to find and implement an alternative during a crisis, which is never optimal.

It is no surprise that this could create many challenges. First of all, the impact on patient access was more detrimental and lasted longer for those that could not adjust as quickly as those that already had telehealth resources in place. For many, they did not have sufficient technology solutions, infrastructure, and security in place, which meant their telehealth options were limited, or at best, would require more work, time, and cost. In many cases, we observed just a basic lack of connectivity or bandwidth to support such services, requiring more effort and investment. And suppose telehealth services were not already in place. In that case, it is safe to assume that these groups also did not have the necessary billing processes and capabilities to sufficiently generate revenue from such services.

Our team also observed significant issues when it came to personnel, including both clinical and non-clinical staff. Merely the fundamental logistical challenge of remote work for many on the business side of operations created many challenges. Teams lacked sufficient hardware required to do their jobs from home, and many bandwidth issues emerged. Then, there were the security issues that emerged when we saw many organizations with remote working staff that had never planned for such dynamics, ultimately requiring sharing sensitive information. As we have previously mentioned, the cybersecurity concerns were vast, and they emerged very early on in the process.

On the clinical side of the staffing challenges, we saw how clinicians accustomed to in-person encounters were now forced to adapt and continue fulfilling their services at the necessary quality levels in a remote environment. We know that telehealth was not a new thing at the onset of COVID. Still, it represented a relatively small portion of the interactive dynamic involving clinicians up to that point in time. Now, remote-based encounters are quite the norm in both the patient-facing services and on the administrative side of the house. Nevertheless, healthcare organizations realized that leadership amongst their clinical teams and business operations staff needed dedicated attention to address future challenges more effectively.

The list of risk areas identified throughout the course of 2020 could undoubtedly continue for some time. We know there will be lessons emerging from this historical period for decades to come. But even though we are not entirely out of the crisis yet, we believe that this is the time we can learn from these lessons and apply them to emerge stronger and face whatever challenges come next more prepared.

Do you feel prepared for what 2021 might hold? Can you identify the lessons learned from 2020?

If you feel unprepared, submit your questions and one of our experienced consultants will guide you in the right direction.

Related Insights