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VIEWPOINT: Digital transformation is imperative to combat health care’s labor crisis

By Juan Pablo Segura


As the coronavirus pandemic first spread across the globe, health systems turned to technology and virtual care while focusing their efforts on COVID-19 and its consequences. Physicians deployed digital tools to keep the worried well out of hospitals, to keep beds open for COVID-19 patients, and to support and manage conditions like pregnancy from the safety of patients’ homes.

Now the health-care industry faces a new challenge. The so-called “Great Resignation” is causing workers to leave their jobs in droves. The health-care sector is among the top three industries affected. 

Hospitals were already operating on razor-thin margins after several years of limiting or foregoing lucrative elective procedures. Now they have been strained to the breaking point by increasing staff shortages. With skilled workers in high demand, many health systems are allocating resources to wooing employees with higher salaries and benefits, paying two to three times the typical salary for in-house nurses to fill staffing gaps with traveling nurses. In the meantime, they’re halting or permanently shutting down services like labor and delivery and emergency departments. 

Why not use that budget to invest in digital tools, to fundamentally rethink how care is delivered? The same tools hospitals used to deliver remote care at the onset of the pandemic can serve as a stopgap during the present labor shortage.

 Extend the reach of overburdened care providers with asynchronous care 

Burnout is both a cause and effect of current staffing shortages. The U.S. was struggling with a shrinking clinical workforce before the pandemic. COVID-19 accelerated the problem, with some taking the opportunity to retire, others moving to more lucrative contract work, and still others switching fields altogether. 

Digital tools are not a solution by themselves. Modalities that require a physician on the other end of a solution (e.g., virtual visits) do nothing to address the problems of physician shortages. Health systems need to implement mobile self-care — consumer technologies like smartphone and tablet apps that enable consumers to capture their own health data without direct provider assistance. When this biometric data is communicated into a patient’s electronic health record, providers can identify elevated risks remotely and act on them.

Reduce the need for in-office visits 

The transition to virtual care at the start of the pandemic forced health-care leaders to re-evaluate and rewrite outdated industry standards. The maternal-health field is a great example of this. Although data showed long ago that a standard schedule of 12 to 14 prenatal visits is not tied to better outcomes, those recommendations remained largely unchanged since the 1930s. 

Then, in response to the need to reduce in-person visits, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists assembled a panel of experts who determined that patients without medical conditions or pregnancy complications were safe to select a less-intense visit schedule, aided by digital health tools.  

Remote patient monitoring can help providers capture more than 20 times the data typically collected at an in-office appointment, maximizing their time and facilitating better outcomes. Providing continuous digital touchpoints to patients also strengthens feelings of safety and support on the patient end, addresses fears from health-care staff that the labor shortage is compromising patient care, and provides a critical safety net for patients that were already struggling with access before hospitals suspended or eliminated services. 

Decrease emergency-department utilization with remote patient monitoring

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) is likewise a solution for managing readmissions and emergency-service utilization. Early research showed the benefits of RPM for reducing hospital stays and admissions. The technology (and providers’ fluency with it) has improved exponentially in the ensuing years. 

While its level of effectiveness varies by population and condition, data shows that RPM reduces acute-care use, and enables providers to intervene in high-risk events without sacrificing quality of care for low-risk patients. 

In the U.S., COVID-related emergency department visits doubled between December 2021 and January 2022 to their highest level since the pandemic began. This strain on emergency services touched non-COVID ER patients as well. Bed shortages in rural facilities caused some ER patients to wait days to be transferred out of state. 

If RPM can effectively mitigate the need for emergency services, it carries the promise of reducing the strain on emergency care within our increasingly crowded hospitals — a potentially life-saving development.

Encourage patient engagement and adherence to quality measures

The collateral damage in this labor crisis are patients — particularly the economically vulnerable, as the hospitals that typically serve these communities struggle to compete with wealthier systems that can better afford the steep rising labor costs. With these hospitals reallocating staff and resources, closing beds and services, and struggling with overloaded schedules, patients are in more danger than ever of slipping through the cracks. 

It’s imperative that hospitals provide a digital safety net for their patients — 24/7 access to provider-approved education, connections to community resources, as well as reminders to engage with important quality measures such as taking medication or measuring blood-pressure levels. Digital tools are critical for supporting patients and providers. 

COVID-19 revealed and exacerbated major holes in a system that was already struggling to service its patients while supporting providers. Unless today’s short-staffed hospitals adapt to current remote patient-monitoring practices, the challenges it has revealed will be with us for a long time. The “Great Resignation” should spark a great transformation, where digital innovation is no longer a stopgap but an integral part of any health-care delivery strategy moving forward.  

Juan Pablo Segura is president and co-founder of Babyscripts, a virtual-care platform for managing obstetrics. He has been named a “Healthcare Transformer” by the Startup Health Academy in New York and a Wireless Lifechanger by CTIA for his work in detecting problems in pregnancy faster.