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The COVID-19 pandemic is proof that it’s time to implement virtual healthcare

April 06, 2020

By Scott Reed

Digitally driven, remote care can help during a health crisis—and during more traditional times, too

Healthcare systems in general are not known for their embrace of rapid change. So, while virtual care has been a topic of conversation for years, very few healthcare systems were taking the necessary steps toward implementation. Perhaps they had yet to see the value in doing so. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the necessity of adopting virtual care couldn’t be clearer.

Because of the current pandemic, there’s no choice but to adopt virtual care. In order to triage patients, healthcare systems must work virtually and remotely to determine who should come to the hospital for immediate treatment and who is better off staying home, getting a prescription, and recovering there. And, of course, there are those that are suffering from a different ailment altogether. Healthcare professionals want to prescreen patients to keep them out of the hospital’s emergency room unless absolute necessary. That allows the healthcare team to focus on acute cases. They may be screening by voice over the phone; ideally, they’re video conferencing with the patient.

The virtual screening process also enables us to protect our at-risk clinicians—those physicians and nurses who we want to protect from COVID-19. These institutions don’t want to be short-staffed when they have a huge patient load. It’s quite likely that we’ll come out of this pandemic with a wider understanding within the industry of the immense value that virtual care adds as a tool for triage and continuing care.

Only the most progressive healthcare institutions have embraced it, but that will change soon

Some of the more progressive healthcare systems and institutions have already made strides toward implementing virtual care. They’re highly ranked for a reason. Also, they’ve figured out they are not going to become tech companies themselves, so they’re subcontracting the technology and data work to the leaders in the tech industry. They subcontract to major tech companies saying “here’s what we expect for virtual care platform and this is how we want it to operate, can you deliver to us the operating platform and the devices so that we can work virtually with patients?”

After the pandemic

Right now, we’re in a crisis. In its aftermath, virtual care will have arrived in some form or another. If I’m not feeling well, I won’t go to the ER or even schedule an in-person appointment, I will schedule a video call and be prescreened to see if I can be treated remotely or if I need to be seen by a healthcare professional. Personal monitoring devices are an important consideration in this virtual future, and we need to spend more time focusing on how these tools can be best utilized for patient and caregiver benefit.

Defining virtual care

What virtual care is, where its value lies, and what it means for healthcare institutions and their design has been a topic of interest for us and our clients for some time. Simply defining virtual health and its value has been a challenge for many organizations and institutions. It’s anticipated this new model of care will upend everything from the patient experience to the providers’ culture and, obviously, the space needs for healthcare itself.

Some may not be keen to embrace a new disruptive model, while others want to prepare for what is coming next. The questions we are often asked and are asking ourselves are: “How is virtual health going to affect what we build? How does virtual health affect my space planning and forecasting in the future right now? What does it mean for programming buildings?”

The virtual screening process also enables us to protect our at-risk clinicians.

It's not about space, it’s about technology

The physical spaces required at these healthcare institutions will likely change, and naturally, our clients want to know what to build next. For example, what size data center is needed for X amount of virtual patient visits per day. Our Stantec team has run those calculations, but virtual care is not about data centers. Even architects need to think and talk about technology before they talk about space, because virtual care represents just one facet of a sea change in healthcare that’s already begun. The truly profound aspects of change in healthcare are technological and the conversations that need to happen are about what the thresholds are for healthcare systems to manage that technology.

So, yes, space ­functions will change

As virtual visits increase, the need to have a face-to-face or clinic visits will lessen. Those in-person clinic visits will be for patients with more acute conditions. So, while technology is driving this change, hospitals are still going to have space for examinations, but it’s going to be different. Plan to incorporate more technology and medical equipment in the space and flexibility in the configuration of the space because we’re not 100% certain what will take place there. We anticipate that the exam room will play multiple roles. Where once it was just for examinations, now it will be used for various small procedures and for treatment of more acute cases—perhaps even minor surgery.

Many hospitals seem to believe that they need to be building big collaboration spaces with audio-visual capability where physicians will all sit together and perform virtual care. Once virtual care is fully implemented, however, these spaces may not see much use. That’s because physicians are often going to be remote themselves. They’re going to be at home, or wherever they feel comfortable, providing care virtually. While that personal touch is lost in some ways, there are many positives to this approach, especially the ability for healthcare providers to be removed from contagious patients and for those patients to have access to care with ease and comfort.

The healthcare system will need a data center—a room locally where much of this technology lives. That room will likely be maintained (and owned and operated) by a subcontractor—a major tech vendor that specializes in IT, smart tech services, and big health data.

Diagnosis and care will change, too

Virtual care is just one aspect of a new data-driven healthcare approach that’s going to change much more than just doctor/patient visits. By harnessing the power of big data, supercomputing, and artificial intelligence (AI), healthcare providers are going to be able to make much more accurate diagnoses than before.

Healthcare is going to become more predictive, more data-driven, and more reliant on advance computing and AI diagnostics. The true frontier in healthcare is big data. And the tech industry already knows this. Just look at where they’re investing.

Tech industry charging into health

The big tech companies already see the future of healthcare on the horizon. That’s why they’re charging ahead, building massive data center capability and supercomputing ability, even expanding their health divisions and making acquisitions in the field of smart medical devices. In a world where you can buy a home EKG monitor from Amazon, the tech revolution in healthcare is already here. The healthcare industry isn’t going to refocus on technology, it’s going to form partnerships with experts in digital information technology.

Emotional and spiritual well-being

One gap, perhaps, that this new approach may expose, is in healthcare institutions’ ability to provide for our well-being in more intangible ways, by creating community and social infrastructure.

While virtual care and big data may help us to distinguish the patients that need critical attention from those that can be managed remotely, neither addresses the full spectrum of well-being. Those institutions and providers that can develop creative programs for outreach that promote 360 degrees of wellness will make a difference in lives. There are some aspects of care and community that are beyond the scope of big data and virtual care, that we will still need to address.

  • Scott Reed

    A principal and healthcare architect in Los Angeles, California, Scott believes that we design to make a difference for our communities and people.

    Contact Scott
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