Constructing an Operational Resilience Strategy for a Post-COVID Healthcare World

Megan Williams

“Unprecedented” doesn’t begin to explain how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the healthcare industry, especially in terms of planning for the future.

Healthcare leaders have been pushed to reconsider and reevaluate systems, scaling quickly to meet demands and stave off unforeseen challenges. The result has been a cross-industry need to rethink operational resilience strategy and reshape business continuity plans to meet a future where flare-ups — whether pandemic-related or not — are guaranteed to be constant companions.

However, there is a path to preparedness and response for future emergencies and pandemics . Much of this journey will rely on how healthcare organizations react in key areas — and this includes how they leverage data to plan, pivot and build perseverance through individual challenges.

Scale to Support Care in the Age of COVID

Providers across the country are still navigating swings in patient volumes, leaving recent incrementalism and budget forecasting reported by Healthcare Financial Management Association largely ineffective. Even as we start to see patients returning to address postponed treatments for non-COVID conditions, second waves of the pandemic, and even extended first waves, will impact patient utilization. As a result, facilities are left having to scale and shift physical spaces in a short time.

For instance, nurses in New York are fighting to reopen New York Presybterian-Allen’s psychiatric unit — the 30-bed unit was converted into a COVID-dedicated ICU during the pandemic’s worst days. Even though numbers have settled, there is no set date for the unit to return to normal operations; a blow to mental health services in the area, especially as reports of anxiety and suicides have spiked and the opioid epidemic continues.

As we move forward, healthcare providers will have to take specific steps to scale efficiency and address new challenges including:

  • Evaluating enterprise-wide inventory of supplies and reallocating appropriately.

  • Re-engineering space, given increased consumption of virtual healthcare delivery services, to enable employee safety and social distancing.

  • Establishing isolation areas for contagious patients in order to safely allow uninterrupted access to other treatments and procedures throughout a pandemic.

  • Maintaining control and visibility by creating standardized processes and online tracking for high-level insight into inventory needs.

  • Developing skills and staffing backup plans, monitoring headcount and assessing how talent can be quickly attracted and onboarded.

  • Rethinking IT infrastructure as a crucial element of business continuity.

These efforts can be enhanced and enabled through an approach that centers on data and prioritizes digital transformation.

Get in Front of Security Gaps

Before the pandemic landed, healthcare was struggling as an industry riddled with security gaps. Unfortunately, COVID has forced the loosening of critical restrictions but also opened patient information up to new vulnerabilities.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gave providers increased discretion when implementing telehealth solutions to ensure they were able to properly and safely reach at-risk populations, including people with disabilities and older patients. But one entity’s discretion is a hacker’s opportunity. HHS has seen an increase in attacks on its cyberinfrastructure, and even the most level-headed reports admit to an increase in opportunistic attacks against healthcare entities.

For providers, this means an increasing need to identify and respond to security gaps. Healthcare security pros will need to get up to date on changes coming from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Office for Civil Rights as well as pandemic-related implications of GDPR.

This awareness will serve as the foundation of an operational resilience strategy that is ready for a new wave of cyberattacks and help identify long-standing gaps like improper storage and end-of-life planning.

Capture Critical Data

The pandemic data story isn’t all gloom and doom. While healthcare is facing new challenges across the board, new opportunities are arising to combat the pandemic using the wealth of patient data that is being generated. To realize benefits like improved care, increases in revenues and healthier business functions, healthcare leadership should rethink a few elements of their organization’s relationship with data. These include:

  • Health and the information lifecycle

  • Document retention practices and privacy policies

  • Workflow automation

  • Protection of critical systems

The payoff is increased ability to leverage emerging programs, like the COVID-19 forecasting model created from a partnership between Google Cloud and the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Keep Post-Pandemic Data Clean

Pandemic data might be new, but it comes with familiar challenges, including data integrity. A flood of data from treatment, testing and care facilities, in addition to new procedures, will exacerbate any existing weakness in data management.

Getting around these weaknesses will require a focus on preventing and eliminating duplicate patient records, collaborating across entities via unique identifiers, and mining data and content analytics to build deep insights into COVID-related programs.

While challenging in the past, this breed of initiative is buoyed by this year’s final rule on interoperability from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, which is designed to “support the access, exchange and use of electronic health information” by driving patient access and sharing of health information.

In many ways, COVID is a new beginning for healthcare. The industry is embarking on a future of fresh challenges, pandemic waves included, but it’s also an era of opportunity to learn new lessons in preparedness and leverage data to empower a more effective operational resilience strategy.

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