Industry Voices—4 important ways healthcare systems should change after COVID-19

Since March, the coronavirus has been an all-consuming battle for hospitals and will remain so for some time to come. That’s good news for their ability to weather the pandemic, but bad news for the financial state of healthcare systems as they face sharp falls in their income.

Regular doctor visits and the elective surgeries that are the lifeblood of hospitals’ revenues have all but dried up. As a result, hospitals are burning through cash even as their spending soars due to the demand for scarce equipment and extra staff in response to COVID-19.

As they emerge from the crisis in this weakened financial state, healthcare systems and hospitals will have more incentive than ever to find ways to increase their operating efficiency, pushing costs down without sacrificing the quality of care.

Pre-crisis, healthcare systems varied greatly in their approaches to plan for and manage medical equipment. The pandemic has now made a compelling and urgent case for it, both by highlighting the unpreparedness of many hospitals and through the increasing financial pressures on the industry.

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Here are four big ways hospitals and healthcare systems are set to change in the post-COVID-19 world.

1. Right-sizing equipment. The coronavirus outbreak has exposed wide disparities in the way hospitals plan the purchases of capital equipment, from big-ticket items like imaging scanners and ventilators to the multitude of less expensive common mobile medical devices. Some made sure they kept an emergency reserve of essential devices that were properly maintained.

But many hospitals were caught on their heels because their medical equipment budgeting and purchasing processes did not include contingency planning. It’s common for hospitals to buy equipment based on departmental requests instead of organizational strategy, leaving them with too much of some types of equipment and too little of others.

Enterprise asset management systems and forward-thinking analytics enable healthcare systems to achieve the right balance by aligning equipment inventory with the anticipated need based on the population they serve. This allows an institution to maximize its purchasing power while minimizing costs and planning for extreme scenarios like a pandemic.   

2. Managing the flow and life cycle of equipment. Devices don’t just need to be inventoried, they need to be efficiently managed and maintained so they’re in the right place, in the right condition at the right time. A hospital may have more than enough IV pumps and wheelchairs, but that doesn’t help if staff can’t find them when they are needed. Utilization rates for mobile hospital equipment (such as IV pumps and wheelchairs) are around 40%, yet nursing staff often suggest they don’t have the equipment they need. 

The scramble for essential equipment during the pandemic has underscored the value of technology like real time location systems paired with optimized equipment maintenance, disinfection and distribution processes.  Synchronizing people, process and technology into a cohesive equipment management strategy can significantly reduce wasted time and stress for front-line medical staff, who have been pushed to their limits by the coronavirus outbreak. This holistic systemic approach can also create big costs savings by optimizing equipment through its entire life cycle, from purchase to decommissioning.  

3. Adapting to changing care models. Even before the pandemic, healthcare delivery had been shifting away from hospitals toward more outpatient and specialty care settings. That trend seems likely to be accelerated by the coronavirus. Patients wary of infection risks in hospitals may demand more care in off-site settings, either through home visits by doctors and nurses, telehealth services or boutique, specialty clinics. To meet these demands, hospitals will need to shift further toward distributed care models, which will require a new approach to medical device planning, distribution and oversight.  For those who already struggle to connect clinical need to equipment planning, this dynamic can be challenging to do without professional guidance and ongoing support. 

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4. Outsourcing. The financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak is also likely to force fresh thinking by hospital executives about what work they do in-house and where to do strategic outsourcing.

There was a trend toward outsourcing before the pandemic, with healthcare systems increasingly partnering with third-party providers for services that aren’t core to patient care, such as food and laundry. Even health systems with long-standing in-house equipment maintenance teams are finding it can still make financial sense to hand the job over to a specialist provider that has the scale and resources to achieve the same or better quality at lower cost.

These specialists have the experience to provide hospitals with the insights and support needed to maximize the return they get from their capital equipment purchases.

At a time of financial difficulty, the beauty of these solutions is that they don’t require massive spending outlays. It’s simply a case of redirecting current operational spending to a new way of doing things, potentially generating cost savings of 10% to 20% along the way. 

It’s time for hospitals to think creatively about how they deliver services and incorporate more sophisticated equipment management into their operations, which should put them on a stronger financial footing over the long term and leave them better prepared for the next crisis.

Scott Elston is general manager, comprehensive service at GE Healthcare. Donna Dyer is senior director, healthcare technology management, at GE Healthcare.