Industry Voices—How COVID-19 accelerated interoperable healthcare technology

Before COVID-19, the healthcare industry was moving toward interoperability, both on its own accord and driven by new rules issued by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The arrival and spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. precipitated incredible challenges for and changes to how we manage patient care and share patient information. Yet the adoption and innovation of health IT didn't slow down. It accelerated.

Over the past few months, stakeholders across the industry recognized how health IT tools could alleviate problems created or exacerbated by the global pandemic. In fact, during this time, providers have surpassed adoption milestones in various health IT solutions like telehealth, electronic prescribing (including for controlled substances), prescription price transparency information and electronic case reporting to report COVID-19 cases to public health authorities.

These are just the first steps. While diagnosing and treating COVID-19 patients remains the leading priority, the healthcare industry must also continue innovating and adopting health IT tools.

Here are a few ways where we've already started to make a difference.

Bridging the gap between the front lines and public health with electronic case reporting

The pandemic put a spotlight on the need to digitize case reporting. Something as seemingly simple as a physician reporting COVID-19 diagnoses to local health agencies is a manual and slow process, making it harder to track COVID-19. When a virus is spreading quickly, public health agencies shouldn't have to wait by the fax machine for case reports to make real-time decisions.

RELATED: Americans will have 'access to their health information on their smartphones': Trump admin on HHS rules

Direct messaging tools, which securely connect healthcare professionals so they can share protected health information, are now being deployed by health systems to inform public health agencies of COVID-19 diagnoses via electronic case reporting.

The innovation of this tool has been welcomed news to both providers and public health officials nationwide. As Steven Lane, M.D., clinical informatics director, privacy, information security and interoperability for Sutter Health, recently explained, "COVID-19 has shone a bright light on our need to maximize the use of standards-based interoperability tools."

As of September, 23 healthcare organizations delivered more than 1.75 million COVID-19 electronic initial case reports to 43 jurisdictions nationwide.

What's remarkable is that these organizations didn't have to build something from scratch to make it happen. And it is this type of innovation that will become the norm, expectation and baseline of tomorrow.

Supporting overworked and overburdened providers with tools that streamline processes 

Front-line healthcare professionals have gone above and beyond during COVID-19—which has left them overworked and overburdened. New health IT tools can help these providers by reducing administrative burdens like faxes, phone calls and other paperwork.

Increasingly, prescribers and pharmacists on the front lines of the pandemic are getting access to technologies that assist in processing prior authorizations, delivering medications, managing drug shortages and supporting patients remotely.

Specialty pharmacists, in particular, are increasingly able to initiate medication prior authorization requests electronically and receive responses directly from benefit plans, streamlining the process of gathering required information from the patient's electronic health record.

RELATED: Verma: COVID-19 proving the need for greater interoperability

This helps patients who depend on specialty medications—and are among the most vulnerable in healthcare—avoid delays in their treatment, and it frees up pharmacists, so they have more time to counsel patients.

Leveraging technology to find the most affordable medications

High prescription costs have always threatened medication adherence, and the pandemic is further exasperating this issue.

According to a PwC survey, 22% of people surveyed said they were going to adjust medication spending because of financial challenges from COVID-19. Although the adoption of benefits-based prescription price transparency tools slowed at the onset of COVID-19, prescribers continued to recognize the importance of medication affordability.

Since December, the number of prescribers using these tools at the point of prescribing has increased by nearly 19%.

Access to decision-support tools like this has also expanded beyond prescribers. If a patient reaches the pharmacy counter and they haven't already learned what they'll pay for their prescription and what the alternatives might be, the pharmacist is now also equipped to have that conversation.

RELATED: As coronavirus strikes, crucial data in electronic health records hard to harvest

Getting patients the care they need, but virtually and electronically

Telehealth has helped bridge the gap in care as COVID-19 continues to keep patients away from in-person ambulatory care visits. In-person visits dropped nearly 60% during March, while telehealth saw roughly half (46%) of consumers in April using this service.

This change also precipitated a rise in the number of prescribers using software to prescribe medication electronically, with one million prescribers utilizing the service to send e-prescriptions to their patients in July—an uptick of over 25,000 prescibers since the end of last year.

Looking ahead

Trends that were reshaping healthcare well before the spring of 2020 have not only continued but accelerated despite the pandemic and with the help of shifting federal regulations.

Health plans, clinicians, payers, and technology vendors recognized we can't stand still in this moment. Sustained innovation and enhanced information via health IT tools will help us support providers, alleviate problems created or exacerbated by COVID-19, improve patient safety, lower costs and ensure quality care. 

Tom Skelton is the CEO of Surescripts, the nation’s largest health information network.