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Where friends and family are now rapidly adopting virtual channels like teleconferencing to stay in touch while sheltering from COVID-19, and millions of workers globally are now telecommuting and logging in from home, health plans and health systems are aggressively steering members and patients to e-consults and virtual care. Even the federal government is encouraging Medicare and Medicaid providers and patients to use telemedicine channels for routine needs or mild COVID-19 cases. Longer-than-usual wait times for telehealth consults suggest these moves are overwhelming current telemedicine investments and infrastructure. 

In the short term, moving consumers to digital channels can help alleviate strain on an overwhelmed healthcare system. Long term, consumers likely will remain loyal to the convenience and accessibility of the digital channels and tools that they were required to adopt during the pandemic. Here are the five key areas — interfaces, engagement, intelligence, data and infrastructure — in which healthcare organizations can take steps to enhance existing and future digital offerings:

  • Increase capacity for digital experiences across multiple channels. Just as Uber and Lyft created new demand among consumers for shared rides, easier engagement with healthcare organizations is likely to generate more interactions. Ensure offerings are available across all channels to meet consumer preferences.

  • Deploy next-gen customer service tools. Chatbots, customer sentiment analysis tools and artificial intelligence (AI)-guided conversational assists for agents will help efficiently manage increased interactions with patients and members.

  • Ensure apps and websites offer features members and patients want. Avoid disappointing adoption rates by providing intuitive interfaces, personalized recommendations and easily completed transactions. Monitor social channels and provide feedback tools now to uncover pain points. Fix usability issues immediately; earmark and prioritize remedial efforts to meet growing consumer expectations of applications and underlying processes.

  • Learn from what works at home. Consider incorporating collaborative tools that get good reviews from associates working at home into member- and patient-facing apps and tools. A virtual whiteboard could help patients envision a physician’s explanation of their care.

  • Increase flat-rate and transparent pricing. Flat-rate telehealth consults will feed the consumer appetite for clear pricing on healthcare services. Embrace opportunities created by the proposed federal price transparency rule to gather competitive data and create defensible, sustainable pricing on common procedures.

  • Deploy intelligent process automation. Software bots can be rapidly implemented to automate rules-based processes and streamline workflows to improve services.

  • Grow analytics and AI capabilities. Predictive analysis targets patients who need early intervention and delivers decision support at the point of care. AI and its machine learning applications find patterns in data that signal emergent outbreaks and identify vulnerable patients among large populations.

  • Incorporate internet instrumentation into data collection strategies. Extend data collection capabilities to wearable and in-home devices. Consumers say they’ll share health data in return for personalized health recommendations. Consider creating a service to equip consumers with internet-connected devices such as scales and thermometers. AI agents can monitor these data streams and flag anomalies in individuals and populations.

  • Create/leverage application programming interfaces (APIs) across a broad swath of the healthcare ecosystem. APIs enable trusted third parties specializing in app development to tap authorized data and bring new features and functions to market more rapidly.

  • Accelerate compliance with federal interoperability rules. Interoperable claims, clinical, administrative and social data will reduce bottlenecks in utilization and care management, enable public health officials to tap into standardized data sets more quickly, and provide large data lakes for machine learning. Plan now for how interoperability can enable more efficient and creative processes.

  • Build for greater resiliency and flexibility. The world likely will face waves of COVID-19 in the next 18 months. Organizations with cloud-based distributed infrastructure should have greater flexibility to shift virtual cloud workloads and to quickly stand up or scale down work-from-home resources.

  • Minimize and modernize IT assets. Modern approaches to infrastructure and app development, such as microservices and “headless” architectures, enable organizations to quickly bring next-generation apps to market and continuously improve them. With virtually all critical infrastructure components available as a service, healthcare organizations can avoid massive capital investment while quickly deploying up-to-the-minute IT capabilities.

Greater comfort with digital, plus new care models shaped by responses to the pandemic – think drive-through testing — will hasten the coming of consumer-driven, care anywhere-on-demand healthcare. Strong digital capabilities will be prerequisites to creating the new health plan and provider business models necessary to participating successfully in the market. Steps taken now to deliver strong digital services during the COVID-19 pandemic will enable healthcare organizations to shift more fluidly to new market realities.

The advice in this article was provided by William “Bill” Shea, Vice President in Cognizant Business Consulting’s Healthcare Practice.

For more COVID-19 pandemic insights, visit our COVID-19 response page.