This year, the healthcare sector has transformed to meet the new and unexpected demands of COVID-19. The way that patients receive treatment has changed. Revenue has decreased. Care facilities have put off updates, expansions, and renovations. The backlog of elective and non-emergency treatment is continuing to stack up.

With all of these factors, it’s hard to imagine that the healthcare sector will recover in an orderly or timely fashion. The effects of the pandemic will have repercussions that will last for months, maybe even years.

Facing these challenges, how will the healthcare sector recover? What should be prioritized? What has been handled well, and what needs to be changed? 

There are three main strategies for the recovery of the healthcare sector:

  • Maintaining the practices that have worked well
  • Managing the backlog of patients who needed to cancel or reschedule non-urgent treatments
  • Improving best practices to manage future waves of the pandemic

Let’s take a closer look at each of these strategies.

Maintaining What Works

As the healthcare sector adapts to “the new normal,” new or improved practices have been a priority. It has resulted in a sort of trial and error process to find what helps, what isn’t as effective as anticipated, and what will work for now but isn’t sustainable for the long-term. As the sector seeks to recover, it’s important to discern which practices can aid future recovery, which can hinder it, and which should only be temporary.

Some of the newly adopted practices were used before the pandemic, though perhaps not as often as they should have been. The most prominent improved practice is telehealth and telemedicine. Telehealth services have been around for a few years now but have become a key component to offering safe healthcare services in non-emergency situations.

A prime example of improved telehealth practices is Johns Hopkins Hospital at Home (HaH). Their HaH offering didn’t just meet the needs of patients but it also resulted in a cost savings of 19% to 30%. The amount of time spent on the visit decreased. The amount of lab and diagnostic tests decreased. The patients themselves reported higher satisfaction and better outcomes than traditional, in-person appointments. With such positive results in a variety of categories, it’s clear that telehealth practices should continue to be a part of the healthcare recovery journey.

To discern which practices to maintain, which to alter, and which to scrap altogether, we should give front-line workers the microphone. Healthcare staff has a firsthand account of how well these practices work and how their patients have received these transitions. Their insights into the future recovery of the sector must not be overlooked.

Managing Backlog

The cancelling and rescheduling of elective and non-urgent surgeries has created a significant backlog. This backlog will need to be overcome before health care facilities can begin to operate normally again. 

To manage this backlog, an efficient system must be put into place. This system needs to prioritize the severity of the need over everything else. Priority slots should go to those who face the biggest risk in putting treatment off further. This means bypassing people who have waited longer for treatment if their situation is less threatening.

Getting through this backlog will pose a significant challenge as the list is long and care facilities are less productive. The decrease in productivity is a result of the increased safety measures being used to help reduce the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.

In a survey performed by McKinsey & Company, hospital systems are considering a variety of actions to increase productivity and manage the backlog efficiently:

The most widely accepted solutions are extending hours and optimizing space. Extending hours of operation may not be sustainable, but according to the study, it’s necessary for catching up. Even with operating at 110% productivity, it could take nearly two years to work through the current backlog. Without an increase in hours/productivity, it just isn’t possible.

Optimizing space is essential in a time when renovations and expansions have been put on hold. Many projects to expand healthcare facilities or to build new branches are currently on hold or have been cancelled altogether. This helps cut back on costs for the healthcare facilities, but it also passes the burden down the line for other businesses. Medical gas plumbing, for example, has seen a significant decrease in revenue as hospitals have cut back on spending. Until care facilities can begin renovations and expansions again, every room must be put to good use.

Improving for Future Pandemic Waves

Attempting to make any kind of recovery while still in the pandemic seems impossible. What we can do is improve the systems that are in place to help limit the amount of damage done in the end. The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting in waves. When numbers are decreasing, or we’re between waves, it’s important to use that time to improve processes and prepare for the next potential wave.

One way that hospitals are preparing is by distributing the patient load between facilities. Even before the pandemic reached the peak of the first wave, it was a major concern that there would not be enough hospital beds to go around. Currently, hospitals all over the world are hitting capacity or are dangerously close. By creating fast and efficient means to transfer patients to open hospital rooms, patients have a better chance of receiving the care they need.

While treating patients infected with coronavirus is a top priority, the world doesn’t stop for a pandemic. Non-COVID-19 infected patients still need essential and emergency care. To provide for these individuals, some countries are creating specialty hubs where these people can go for treatment with a significantly decreased risk of COVID-19 infection. This helps to limit any increase in the backlog by continuing to treat patients during the pandemic.

For these strategies to work, there needs to be clear protocols and frequent communication with front-line workers. As things continue to progress, the healthcare industry must also continue to be flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the environment.