6 trends for health system CIOs to know during the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak is accelerating trends toward telehealth and virtual visits, placing a premium on access to care and care coordination.

However, healthcare providers are also coming under significant financial stress during this time and are resorting to drastic measures as revenue disappears, including furloughing employees not involved in patient care.

1. Telehealth visits are surging in the triple and quadruple digits during the coronavirus pandemic. Telehealth visits in New York spiked 312 percent during the pandemic, leading to delays in services. Nemours Children's Health System in Jacksonville, Fla., reported telehealth visits jumped 1,110 percent in the past week, and requests continue to rise. Renton, Wash.-based providence also reported a 20 to 30 fold jump in virtual visits since it treated its first COVID-19 patient in January. The drastic increases in telehealth visits are stressing the current infrastructure for some health systems, leading to delays while additional clinicians prepare for video consultations.

2. The leading hacker organizations have agreed to stop targeting hospitals and healthcare organizations during the coronavirus pandemic as of March 19. However, physicians and consumers continue to experience phishing and malware attacks related to the coronavirus outbreak, and the World Health Organization reported seeing an increase in unsuccessful ransomware attempts.

3. The Office of Civil Rights has updated guidelines for the amount of protected health information about patients exposed to COVID-19 that can be shared with law enforcement, first responders and paramedics. Hospitals can now share names and treatment information about COVID-19 patients with public health authorities without violating HIPAA. On March 17, President Donald Trump also announced his administration would not be enforcing certain HIPAA penalties during the pandemic, including the right for patients to be excluded from facility directories.

4. President Trump signed an emergency funding bill on March 6 that granted $500 million waivers for Medicare telehealth restrictions on March 6 and then expanded telehealth capabilities for Medicare beneficiaries on March 17, allowing any beneficiary to access telehealth services from any location. Many private payers are also changing their telehealth coverage for virtual visits during the pandemic. Humana announced on March 24 that it would reimburse telehealth visits at the same rate as in-office visits temporarily.

5. Hospitals and health systems across the country are furloughing staff members not directly involved in patient care, which could mean IT positions. For example, Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg, Pa., furloughed a "significant" number of employees who aren't directly involved in patient care on March 19 until the coronavirus pandemic passes. Rockford, Ill.-based Mercyhealth furloughed an undisclosed number of employees on March 24 who provide services that can be delayed. On the other hand, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said it would protect the salary of its 63,000 workers through April 28.

6. Hospital finances are significantly affected by the coronavirus outbreak, as elective surgeries are canceled or postponed and resources needed to treat patients with the coronavirus increase. In-person visits have also transitioned to lower-reimbursing telelehealth visits. Credit rating agencies report the outlook for nonprofit and for-profit hospitals is negative due to the lost revenue from elective procedures and increased cost for paying staff overtime as they treat patients with the coronavirus.

More articles on healthcare:
Telehealth services struggle to manage 'extreme volumes' related to coronavirus calls
Scaling IT infrastructure during the coronavirus outbreak — key insights from Providence CIO B.J. Moore
Kaiser Permanente closes clinics, expands virtual visits to combat COVID-19

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