Rush CIO Dr. Shafiq Rab: It's 'time for IT to shine' amid coronavirus outbreak

There are now 164 confirmed and presumptive cases of coronavirus in the U.S., including five in Chicago. Hospitals and health systems are responding to increased demand for information about the outbreak and caring for their communities in the most responsible way possible.

For many, that means telehealth and virtual visits. Shafiq Rab, MBBS, senior vice president and CIO of Rush University Medical Center, spent around two years developing the health system's app to streamline communication and provide accurate information to patients. Now it's go-time.

"We have been planning for this and increasing our bandwidth, so we have everything we need within our app," he said. "This is the time for IT to shine."

The app has about 16,000 adopters and is built for patients to communicate with their providers as well as engage in virtual visits. Patients can have virtual visits and patients with the virus who are in isolation can use the app to connect with their caregivers. Dr. Rab said his team is also enabling technology to take the temperature of quarantined patients and send the data directly to physicians. The app also supports internal communication and has analytics around case prediction and regional hot spots so nurses and physicians can treat patients appropriately.

Rush also has a command center set up to manage patient care during the outbreak. Among the biggest challenges during the outbreak is resource management; the hospital could experience supply and staffing shortages as well as increased demand for video visits.

"The city of Chicago depends on us," said Dr. Rab. "We are taking this not as a burden, but as a challenge and opportunity to serve patients. We believe our No. 1 job is to serve patients and then our physicians, caregivers, communities and then our organization. That is the mentality we have at Rush."

Depending on how the virus spreads, the health system may need to move staff members to work from home and it could require extra hours and manpower to support them. At the same time, others may become ill and create staff shortages and stress for those who still have their boots on the ground. When the virus first began to spread, a lack of information about it created fear; however, Dr. Rab believes that as communications become clearer and treatment is better understood, there will be less panic.

"One of our jobs on the IT side is supporting our marketing department," he said. "We cannot be afraid of the coronavirus because we need to help other people. We need to provide the right information from the right sources instead of feeding fear and anxieties. Better tests are coming every day."

The outbreak is also a litmus test for digital health and telehealth. On March 6, President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion bill to support coronavirus prevention, treatment and education; it also waived the rural requirement for telehealth reimbursement so all Medicare patients have access to covered telehealth visits, regardless of location.

"This is an opportunity to make our nation better and an opportunity to serve our patients in a different way using technology," Dr. Rab said. "That is the silver lining."


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