One year later, we owe our COVID medical heroes a more efficient health care system
A year ago this month, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, we have seen how a well-run health care system that works for everyone can save lives—and how inefficiencies snowball to create devastating harm, undermining the efforts of frontline medical professionals.
While viral videos of citizens cheering doctors and nurses are heartening, it’s also clear that health care workers—including administrative staff, janitorial teams and the thousands of other essential workers who keep our health care system operating—have borne a disproportionate mental, physical and emotional burden from this pandemic. We owe it to them and their patients to learn from our mistakes—and push on with resolve.
After all, the pandemic exposed dangerous cracks in our broader health care system. Shortcomings have emerged in everything from securing masks to efficiently allocating medical professionals where they’re needed most. Mistakes during times like these are costly, and the pandemic’s anniversary should make us reflect on lessons learned.
We should begin with an overall accounting of the weaknesses in our approach. In recent decades, the U.S. health care system has improved a range of outcomes, though the system’s overall complexity often overshadows this progress. The devastating impact of the pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of these piecemeal corrections to the system.
We have seen more durable progress in addressing our shortcomings when we focus on integrating systems to bring about large-scale efficiencies. In 2009, the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act (ARRA) introduced Meaningful Use to help optimize EHR technology. Meaningful Use encouraged interoperability between health care systems, so a patient’s record in Arizona could be easily transferred to a hospital in Idaho, for example. A similar change occurred with the consolidation of revenue-cycle management across hospitals to reduce overhead and increase the operating efficiency of the health care system.
Still, there’s much more work to be done. Covid-19 has exposed the need to consolidate and integrate processes and systems that manage governance, risk management and compliance. These areas touch virtually every part of a health care system, including staff scheduling and credentialing of health care providers and vendors. Mismanagement here can result in retired doctors waiting too long to get credentialed again, even if they’re needed to fight COVID-19. It can lead to scheduling mistakes that leave hospitals short-staffed. And it can cause planning errors that prevent nurses from taking lunch breaks.
We can do better. Technological advances have made it easier to streamline these procedures by using suites of software that can integrate and coordinate tasks, allowing hospitals and their staff to better organize their time and resources, and ensuring more health vendors meet critical compliance standards. (The software provider symplr, of which one of the authors is CEO, sells several products that aim to serve this market.) This will result in a better quality of life and a better workplace for our health care heroes, as well as better results for the patients they serve and the communities where they operate.
Ultimately, efficiency in the health care system isn’t just about numbers on a page or dollars in a spreadsheet. It’s about how we treat and care for the people who are treating us. It’s about whether we can make the best use of our shared time and resources. It’s about whether our friends, neighbors and loved ones can get the care they deserve.
Technology providers and the government must step up to support our health care system with these kinds of efficiencies. We must reimagine what’s possible. Legislation like the ARRA and the introduction of Meaningful Use brought about tremendous advances 12 years ago, but they didn’t address the kinds of operational efficiencies that have become critical during Covid.
A glaring omission from the $1.9 trillion congressional stimulus package is funding or incentives to help health care providers improve efficiencies, particularly when many are hurting financially from a decline in elective surgeries. And we can’t afford to wait for government action; we must take it upon ourselves to holistically reevaluate and upgrade our health care system so that we’re focused on providing solutions from the second a patient enters a care facility until the moment they are discharged. Because in our profession, it’s not just numbers we’re dealing with—it’s lives.
Kavita Patel, M.D., is a primary care physician and a former Obama administration official. BJ Schaknowski is CEO of software company symplr.