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IT Support: The Key to Navigating Regulatory Changes and Emergency Response

By Sheri Stoltenberg

Healthcare regulations have relaxed with astonishing speed over the past few weeks as government entities and commercial payers try to assist in the fight against COVID-19. As the virus continues to strain healthcare operations, temporary changes aimed at expanding clinical care capabilities have emerged—including letting providers work across state lines, reimbursing for telehealth services, and banning "surprise" billing.

To leverage those clinical care gains, however, hospitals and health systems need an agile and supportive IT infrastructure. The fast-moving adjustments are creating an influx of remote IT needs. Whether it is additional support services or new training programs, hospitals and health systems must have IT help desks and teams capable of supporting patients and providers—both during the crisis and long afterward as healthcare continues to evolve.

Here are a few ways IT help desks can help hospitals and health systems take advantage of the current regulatory shifts:

Telehealth systems and patient portal support

During the COVID-19 emergency, providers will be paid for delivering more than 80 new services via telehealth. The definition of telehealth, too, has expanded: Clinical visits and remote patient monitoring can now occur through both interactive audio/video apps and audio-only phone calls. When appropriate, physicians can also supervise their clinical staff using virtual technologies, since in-person supervision requirements have been suspended for the time being.

What hospitals and health systems must realize is that telehealth services impact more than just audio and video capabilities. It also adds new responsibility for patient portals. Ongoing patient portal support is essential for ensuring that digital care communication is accurate and effective. The significance of the patient portal amplifies during a health crisis. For some patients and their families, this may be the only communication channel with providers for months. May hospitals do not have the bandwidth to take technical or educational support tickets from patients during this chaotic time, so third-party help desk support partners can step in quickly to relieve this strain.

All of these changes require IT departments to be skilled not only at setting up remote access but also at delivering remote support to end users who have a wide range of technology experience and comfort zones. 100% virtual training solutions for providers and other end users offer a way to help ease the transition for everyone, and get them up and running with minimal downtime.

Remote patient care locations

Regulators have loosened the strict definitions that typically limit where providers can offer clinical services. For now, non-hospital buildings and spaces can be used for patient care and quarantine—including ambulatory surgery centers, inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, hotels, and dormitories. As the number of cases continue to grow, more "non-traditional" buildings are recruited to free beds for COVID-19 patients. IT can help by building infection alerts and letter templates to help keep patients and staff informed and safe. With emergency care taking place in these non-traditional locations, IT teams can also step in to make sure the facilities are securely added into health systems’ IT infrastructures with full EHR access, while leading data collection efforts with infectious disease leaders to coordinate data to the CDC, state health officials and any regional or state COVID-19 case tracker dashboards.

Changing workforce

For the duration of the emergency, hospitals on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic can quickly hire physicians, nurses, and other community providers—even those from other states—without the usual paperwork hurdles. While the added staff resources are a welcome relief, especially amidst furloughs and mounting cost pressures, IT departments must be able to train the newcomers on all hospital systems, while simultaneously supporting remote providers and the patient portal, and enable remote access to clinical records and databases on a secure network. Using an IT partner with flexible staffing capabilities can assist organizations in volatile times, such as now, to ebb and flow with staff shrinkage and growth without hindering workflows.

More than ever, simplicity and support are key.

The goal of all of these changes is to give hospitals and health systems the ability to care for an influx of new patients by opening up non-traditional care sites and staffing them quickly. Without the proper IT supports in place, however, healthcare organizations may find that they face additional challenges at a time when simplicity matters most.

For maximum community responsiveness, hospitals and health systems should consider some of the other ways IT help desk staff can assist the care process, as well. These might include:

  • Scheduling appointments and handling patient inquiries for COVID-19 tests.  This requires staff bandwidth and knowledge of how to manage and interact with patients and the patient portal.
  • Protecting against cybersecurity threats.  Cybersecurity takes on added importance during emergency situations as external entities attempt to take advantage of both hospital and end-user vulnerabilities.
  • Centralizing support.  By leveraging a command center, healthcare organizations can efficiently track patients and staff, enable secure messaging, and provide critical updates regarding the organization, patient care and the community.
  • Evaluating overarching trends.  Using real time smart analytics dashboards and reports to track specific data elements can help hospitals and health systems view overarching care trends for informed decisions. This isn’t limited to clinical care decision making. In fact, data analytics insights weaved into help desk support quickly identifies ticket issue trends to pinpoint common end-user errors or workflow delays to streamline resolution during crisis response.

Payers and regulators across the board are loosening regulations temporarily so that providers can better care for patients during the current pandemic. This opens new opportunities for hospital IT help desks to support our clinical teams. With the urgent need to cope with COVID-19, skilled IT help desks and infrastructure are essential for enabling hospitals and health systems to maximize all the potential benefits of relaxed regulation.