The pandemic accelerated tech-driven healthcare delivery; will it last? Key thoughts from Summa Health CIO Tanya Arthur

Tanya Arthur, senior vice president and CIO of Summa Health in Akron, Ohio, is working diligently to support caregivers as well as an aging population during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Here, she discusses her team's top priorities and where she sees the best opportunities to shape population health in the future.

Question: What are your top priorities during the pandemic?

Tanya Arthur: No. 1 is patient care and making sure the people of our community are getting the medical care they need. At Summa, we are focused on becoming the premier population health management organization in Ohio. A significant portion of our community is 65 years old or older, so during the pandemic they are concerned about getting the care they need, especially those that have comorbidities that add to their risk.

To ensure we are best positioned to care for our community we are focused on how we deliver care and supporting those that are on the front line of caring for our patients. There are a number of different technologies that we have implemented across our organization, including virtual health and the ability to work remotely, that have driven innovative new approaches to care delivery, conservation of PPE and reduced risk of spreading the COVID virus.

While we have seen a plateau in COVID-19 patients for our region and we are placing focus on safely reopening our services and monitoring COVID-19 spread of positive cases. We want to have the tools and tech in place that can serve as an early warning system to know when we need to take action at any given point and especially if there is a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases. We have a strong surge plan in place and have a multistage approach based on key triggers, whether that be a certain number of clinical patients or an increase in positive diagnoses, that will alert us when additional action is necessary.

Q: Has your population of people aged 65 years old and older adapted to telehealth well? Or has that taken some time?

TA: Our population has been able to make the transition to telehealth pretty easily, partially because CMS relaxed their guidelines to allow for virtual visits via video as well as audio. Although the tech is pretty straightforward, there are always individuals that will experience challenges for various reasons.

We have the asynchronous ability for patients to go online and type a message in our chat box where they can get care for common ailments. We leverage various ways to connect with our patient population- bringing the technology and services to where and how they best interact with us. One of my concerns going forward is that CMS will examine their regulations and reverse the decision to cover the audio capability. As a result, we are taking action to enhance and simplify the virtual visit process with future regulations and requirements in mind.

Q: What are your other top concerns for the next 30 days?

TA: There are a lot of lessons learned coming forward. Since a vaccine or effective treatment regimen has yet to be developed for COVID-19 patients; at the moment, we are responding to the symptoms, addressing consumer fears, and feeling our way to a new normal .

We are focused on helping the community feel safe in seeking care in our facilities. Our strategy includes thinking differently about how we delivery care as a system, changing workflows and adjusting protocols, as well as continuing to leverage technology to expand capabilities to address care for patients with chronic conditions as well as facilitate health and wellness. We need to be able to deliver virtual care in multiple ways and inclusive of home monitoring and diagnostic testing.

Healthcare is typically a slow-moving industry and there have been many barriers that were quickly removed with this crisis. Going forward, I hope that we as an industry are able to take advantage of the burning platform in front of us to accelerate needed change in leveraging interoperable technology capabilities to take care for the populations we serve. Organizations will have to be intentional about that and it will be important for healthcare providers across the U.S. to advocate from a regulatory standpoint to influence how this goes forward.

Q: How will the pandemic affect your strategy and areas of focus in the next six to 12 months?

TA: Our strategy is to embed virtual capabilities into the fabric of how we deliver care and make it part of the delivery system and mechanism itself. Our focus is in really three core areas:
First, Chronic disease management- those are already dealing with a chronic illness such as diabetes, hypertension or respiratory disease. Secondly, those with rising risk who are predisposed to certain diseases and caring for those patients in a way that reduces the chances they develop a more serious illness ; and thirdly, focusing on the technology capabilities that we have to improve well care for patients.

We are also heavily focused on the patient experience, which encompasses a range of interactions that patients have with our health system and their care providers. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to accelerate our strategy around that.

Q: Has the financial pressure placed on health systems by the pandemic had any impact on your IT projects?

TA: We have revaluated all of our Health IT projects. While many will continue forward, we have place some on hold and furloughed some staff to reduce expenses.

As an organization we have a strong balance sheet and are confident we will continue to thrive.

Q: How do you think COVID-19 will change healthcare delivery, and what can health systems do to prepare?

TA: Health systems, including ours, will need to think differently. We need to think more like other industries. We are dependent on our reimbursement models, but I think there is significant opportunity to direct how we drive revenue. It's all about re-evaluating the whole financial model, thinking more broadly about the value of improved health outcomes and leveraging data to improve care. COVID-19 has been a wakeup call for all of us and what is in front of us is the opportunity to make significant and sustainable change in ways that will improve the health and wellness of our populations.

The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has exposed areas within the healthcare system that have been broken for some time that we can change for the better. I've been impressed by the fact that we can come together and move mountains overnight.

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