Beyond COVID-19: Preparing for a Future of Remote, Digital Interaction in the Healthcare Sector

A return to what the healthcare industry once knew as normal may no longer exist

By Chris Althoff and Kim Perry

Contributor Lorri Detrick

While attention has been on supporting healthcare workers at the front lines of battling the COVID-19 crisis—and rightfully so—some parts of the sector are grappling with the new challenge of remote, digital interaction among workers and with patients or members. Healthcare organizations have had to move rapidly to ensure continuity of payer services and non-crisis-related medical care, as well as back-office operations, from workers’ homes.

Across all industries, the rapid shift to decentralized work and interaction has cast a spotlight on the digital workplace. Under normal conditions, the case for digital/remote working tends to focus on productivity, employee satisfaction, and lower real estate costs. In this crisis, though, the ability to shift quickly to digital channels, both internal and external, was central to agility.  

Some organizations – for example, those with large teams of technology and information workers – were better prepared to adapt than others. But given how little we still know about the virus and longer-term needs for social distancing, it’s a safe bet that digital-first interaction will continue to some extent. And it is entirely possible that it could become part of the healthcare sector’s new reality. 

Healthcare leaders should be considering their organizations’ readiness to sustain at least some level of remote work and interaction. There will, of course, be technology-related considerations: What equipment do employees need to be successful? Are the right security capabilities in place? Can the support desk handle a higher volume of requests? But establishing an effective, productive remote workforce goes well beyond technology. Following are five organizational and/or operational considerations that are relevant now and as you plan for the months—and years—ahead.

1. Elevate internal communication 

Supporting a newly established and evolving remote workforce requires more attention to communication than in normal times. Communication frequency and quality of messaging are key to maintaining productivity as working arrangements and requirements evolve. Employees will need clear guidance around policy and procedure changes so they understand what is expected of them during change. Remote working will also require greater attention to areas such as culture and engagement.

To elevate internal communication rapidly, consider leveraging resources and technology assets that are usually devoted to external communications. For example, you may be able to use existing marketing campaign automation capabilities to deliver targeted, relevant messaging to remote employees. Additionally, consider how you can adapt your intranet or portal to bolster communication and deliver timely messaging – for example, by adding a new “remote working center” that connects employees with content or services they would normally receive in an office. 

2. Consider the longer-term role of digital working

When the health risks ease, should remote work remain, and to what extent? There are many considerations. Sustained economic turmoil may make cost reduction necessary. Remote working may be a way to reduce longer-term real estate needs. Furthermore, the COVID-19 situation has demonstrated that it is possible to maintain operations and engage employees even when they are working at home, and some employees may increasingly expect that option. Some organizations have found that employees are actually more productive when they avoid commuting time and in-office distractions. And remote working increases the ability to shift, layer and extend working hours, which can enhance customer service and experience. All of these factors – and more – will need to be part of the decision-making process. 

3. Ease friction for healthcare consumers

Just as it is with employees, COVID-19 is retraining consumers to behave digitally in all aspects of their lives. When this situation abates, these behaviors will continue. Healthcare consumers will continue to expect services such as instant messaging, text interactions, extended hours of availability, online scheduling and service requests, email access and even expanded telemedicine capabilities. Having technology and a trained workforce in all of these areas, along with the necessary hours of operation, will be imperative.

Many organizations embraced the concept of a minimum viable product to “get something out there” during the crisis. Now, enhancing or building upon these capabilities and formalizing digital development approaches should become a priority. Consider establishing new teams that use principles of human centered design and agile approaches to ensure new consumer-facing capabilities continue to meet evolving expectations. 

4. Be prepared to toggle – again 

Some work will gravitate back to the office. But what happens when the next crisis or disaster forces us to decentralize physically again? First, debrief on the experience while it is fresh in mind. Ask what worked well and what needs to be done better next time? Also gather feedback from employees as part of this process. 

Apply those lessons as part of a comprehensive “disaster” preparation or crisis readiness plan that includes policies and procedures around rapid digital workforce deployment. Plans should mitigate technology and operational deficits that emerged during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, the current scenario required companies to alert and communicate with employees urgently, such as via text. This means having not only the capability to send such alerts, but also a process for maintaining up-to-date employee contact information. 

Additionally, business intelligence, reporting and enterprise management systems need to function seamlessly and serve leaders and employees, regardless of where they are working. Finally, establish the right tools for remote work and collaboration – such as telephony and conferencing capabilities – purposefully rather than having to do so again on the fly during an emergency. 

5. Address the shift

The healthcare sector is relatively new to widespread remote work and digital interactions compared to other industries. Technology will be a considerable part of making the transition effectively, but there’s more to it than that. Consider all angles and implications surrounding compliance, security, and HIPAA in a distributed work environment. Review cost advantages and trade-offs, maintaining worker motivation and engagement, and productivity to maximize throughput in a new environment.

Analysis of those factors will yield questions: Where does an organization begin to drive toward a potentially seismic, long-term shift in business operations? Is a remote workforce right for the business, and to what extent? What are the internal business cases and planning efforts needed to support such a transformation? And how do you present this to your various functional area leads and “sell” it across the organization? These considerations may be nuanced and variable depending on the size and current state of your organization, but they are essential to articulating and initiating a clear path forward.

Prepare for a new reality

Lingering safety concerns and evolving consumer and employee expectations will change some aspects of organizations forever. A return to what the healthcare industry once knew as normal may no longer exist. This, in turn, will create new ways of virtual work and interaction that need defining and establishing to remain agile and efficient. This is uncharted territory for everyone, but as a trusted advisor to many payers, provider organizations, and other participants in the healthcare ecosystem, we are available to help guide you through this journey.

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