Some pundits claim that current reporting on COVID hospital admissions is overly pessimistic, failing to account for a distinction between patients admitted explicitly “for COVID”, and those admitted for other reasons who also, incidentally, have COVID. The latter now comprise up to half of some health systems’ COVID patients.
In an article in The Atlantic this week, reporter Ed Yong rejects this dichotomy, on the grounds that it ignores both the significant number of people for whom COVID exacerbates underlying chronic conditions, as well as the challenges any patient with COVID poses to hospitals. As he points out, those patients still require isolation and special safety measures, further worsening the burden on an already-strained staff.
The Gist: For hospitals, dealing with endemic COVID will mean establishing strategies to manage COVID-positive patients without postponing much needed non-emergency care, and without overly taxing a stretched workforce. Downplaying the burden of “incidental COVID” is not helpful, but sustaining operations while on perpetual crisis footing will prove untenable.
The healthcare industry’s staffing shortage crisis has had clear consequences for care delivery and efficiency, forcing some health systems to pause nonemergency surgeries or temporarily close facilities. Less understood is how these shortages are affecting care quality and patient safety.
A mix of high COVID-19 patient volume and staff departures amid the pandemic has put hospitals at the heart of a national staffing shortage, but there is little national data available to quantify the shortages’ effects on patient care.
The first hint came last month from a CDC report that found healthcare-associated infections increased significantly in 2020 after years of steady decline. Researchers attributed the increase to challenges related to the pandemic, including staffing shortages and high patient volumes, which limited hospitals’ ability to follow standard infection control practices.
“That’s probably one of the first real pieces of data — from a large scale dataset — that we’ve seen that gives us some sense of direction of where we’ve been headed with the impact of patient outcomes as a result of the pandemic,” Patricia McGaffigan, RN, vice president of safety programs for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, told Becker’s. “I think we’re still trying to absorb much of what’s really happening with the impact on patients and families.”
An opaque view into national safety trends
Because of lags in data reporting and analysis, the healthcare industry lacks clear insights into the pandemic’s effect on national safety trends.
National data on safety and quality — such as surveys of patient safety culture from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality — can often lag by several quarters to a year, according to Ms. McGaffigan.
“There [have been] some declines in some of those scores more recently, but it does take a little while to be able to capture those changes and be able to put those changes in perspective,” she said. “One number higher or lower doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend, but it is worth really evaluating really closely.”
For example, 569 sentinel events were reported to the Joint Commission in the first six months of 2021, compared to 437 for the first six months of 2020. However, meaningful conclusions about the events’ frequency and long-term trends cannot be drawn from the dataset, as fewer than 2 percent of all sentinel events are reported to the Joint Commission, the organization estimates.
“We may never have as much data as we want,” said Leah Binder, president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group. She said a main area of concern is CMS withholding certain data amid the pandemic. Previously, the agency has suppressed data for individual hospitals during local crises, but never on such a wide scale, according to Ms. Binder.
CMS collects and publishes quality data for more than 4,000 hospitals nationwide. The data is refreshed quarterly, with the next update scheduled for October. This update will include additional data for the fourth quarter of 2020.
“It is important to note that CMS provided a blanket extraordinary circumstances exception for Q1 and Q2 2020 data due to the COVID-19 pandemic where data was not required nor reported,” a CMS spokesperson told Becker’s. “In addition, some current hospital data will not be publicly available until about July 2022, while other data will not be available until January 2023 due to data exceptions, different measure reporting periods and the way in which CMS posts data.”
Hospitals that closely monitor their own datasets in more near-term windows may have a better grasp of patient safety trends at a local level. However, their ability to monitor, analyze and interpret that data largely depends on the resources available, Ms. McGaffigan said. The pandemic may have sidelined some of that work for hospitals, as clinical or safety leaders had to shift their priorities and day-to-day activities.
“There are many other things besides COVID-19 that can harm patients,” Ms. Binder told Becker’s. “Health systems know this well, but given the pandemic, have taken their attention off these issues. Infection control and quality issues are not attended to at the level of seriousness we need them to be.”
What health systems should keep an eye on
While the industry is still waiting for definitive answers on how staffing shortages have affected patient safety, Ms. Binder and Ms. McGaffigan highlighted a few areas of concern they are watching closely.
The first is the effect limited visitation policies have had on families — and more than just the emotional toll. Family members and caregivers are a critical player missing in healthcare safety, according to Ms. Binder.
When hospitals don’t allow visitors, loved ones aren’t able to contribute to care, such as ensuring proper medication administration or communication. Many nurses have said they previously relied a lot on family support and vigilance. The lack of extra monitoring may contribute to the increasing stress healthcare providers are facing and open the door for more medical errors.
Which leads Ms. Binder to her second concern — a culture that doesn’t always respect and prioritize nurses. The pandemic has underscored how vital nurses are, as they are present at every step of the care journey, she continued.
To promote optimal care, hospitals “need a vibrant, engaged and safe nurse workforce,” Ms. Binder said. “We don’t have that. We don’t have a culture that respects nurses.”
Diagnostic accuracy is another important area to watch, Ms. McGaffigan said. Diagnostic errors — such as missed or delayed diagnoses, or diagnoses that are not effectively communicated to the patient — were already one of the most sizable care quality challenges hospitals were facing prior to the pandemic.
“It’s a little bit hard to play out what that crystal ball is going to show, but it is in particular an area that I think would be very, very important to watch,” she said.
Another area to monitor closely is delayed care and its potential consequences for patient outcomes, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Many Americans haven’t kept up with preventive care or have had delays in accessing care. Such delays could not only worsen patients’ health conditions, but also disengage them and prevent them from seeking care when it is available.
Reinvigorating safety work: Where to start
Ms. McGaffigan suggests healthcare organizations looking to reinvigorate their safety work go back to the basics. Leaders should ensure they have a clear understanding of what their organization’s baseline safety metrics are and how their safety reports have been trending over the past year and a half.
“Look at the foundational aspects of what makes care safe and high-quality,” she said. “Those are very much linked to a lot of the systems, behaviors and practices that need to be prioritized by leaders and effectively translated within and across organizations and care teams.”
She recommended healthcare organizations take a total systems approach to their safety work, by focusing on the following four, interconnected pillars:
Culture, leadership and governance
Patient and family engagement
For example, evidence shows workforce safety is an integral part of patient safety, but it’s not an area that’s systematically measured or evaluated, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Leaders should be aware of this connection and consider whether their patient safety reporting systems address workforce safety concerns or, instead, add on extra work and stress for their staff.
Safety performance can slip when team members get busy or burdensome work is added to their plates, according to Ms. McGaffigan. She said leaders should be able to identify and prioritize the essential value-added work that must go on at an organization to ensure patients and families will have safe passage through the healthcare system and that care teams are able to operate in the safest and healthiest work environments.
In short, leaders should ask themselves: “What is the burdensome work people are being asked to absorb and what are the essential elements that are associated with safety that you want and need people to be able to stay on top of,” she said.
To improve both staffing shortages and quality of care, health systems must bring nurses higher up in leadership and into C-suite roles, Ms. Binder said. Giving nurses more authority in hospital decisions will make everything safer. Seattle-based Virginia Mason Hospital recently redesigned its operations around nurse priorities and subsequently saw its quality and safety scores go up, according to Ms. Binder.
“If it’s a good place for a nurse to go, it’s a good place for a patient to go,” Ms. Binder said, noting that the national nursing shortage isn’t just a numbers game; it requires a large culture shift.
Hospitals need to double down on quality improvement efforts, Ms. Binder said. “Many have done the opposite, for good reason, because they are so focused on COVID-19. Because of that, quality improvement efforts have been reduced.”
Ms. Binder urged hospitals not to cut quality improvement staff, noting that this is an extraordinarily dangerous time for patients, and hospitals need all the help they can get monitoring safety. Hospitals shouldn’t start to believe the notion that somehow withdrawing focus on quality will save money or effort.
“It’s important that the American public knows that we are fighting for healthcare quality and safety — and we have to fight for it, we all do,” Ms. Binder concluded. “We all have to be vigilant.”
The true consequences of healthcare’s labor shortage on patient safety and care quality will become clear once more national data is available. If the CDC’s report on rising HAI rates is any harbinger of what’s to come, it’s clear that health systems must place renewed focus and energy on safety work — even during something as unprecedented as a pandemic.
The irony isn’t lost on Ms. Binder: Amid a crisis driven by infectious disease, U.S. hospitals are seeing higher rates of other infections.
“A patient dies once,” she concluded. “They can die from COVID-19 or C. diff. It isn’t enough to prevent one.”
Hospitals in the future will look far more tech-enabled and consumer-focused — when patients are actually even getting care in a hospital building itself.
Why it matters: Hospitals were already pushing morecare outside their four walls before the pandemic. COVID accelerated that shift, forcing hospitals to reimagine what’s possible to deliver in patients’ homes, experts say.
The big picture: One way to picture what hospitals of the future will look like is to look at two brand new hospital buildings opened this fall by competing Pennsylvania health systems.
The buildings, by Penn Medicine and Highmark Health both offer hotel-like amenities such as better food, streaming services, and better-positioned outlets for cell phone charging. They’ve also made medical records more accessible to patients, executives say.
But they were also designed with the belief that, in the future, only the most complex care might be delivered in them.
It added 7% in costs to the project, but made sense considering the ICU demands of the pandemic and “not knowing what the future will be,” CEO Kevin Mahoney told Axios.
The hospital also offers patients bedside tablets that allow patients to control the light and temperature of the room, and to activate frosted privacy glass on the doors of their rooms.
The benefits are two-fold: patients really like it and it can help free up staff to focus on more critical tasks, Mahoney said.
“The pandemic was an amplifier for natural trends that were already starting to develop,” Highmark CEO David Holmberg told Axios. “The complexity of medical procedures [in hospitals] is going to be significantly higher.”
The bottom line: Tech advances will change the entire hospital experience no matter where the care is delivered.
Wearables will provide digital biomarkers to allow better patient monitoring from the home. “Smart” infrastructure will help patients find parking and navigate massive hospital campuses when they need to go into the hospital.
And 5G will allow doctors to pull up massive amounts of personalized data on a wireless screen in seconds, Hon Pak, chief medical officer at Samsung Electronics told Axios.
“The perspective we want to bring to the smart hospital is it’s not just about caring for the condition or the disease, but it’s about caring for the whole,” Pak said.
The North Carolina attorney general’s office received 116 complaints about Asheville, N.C.-based Mission Health over a 12-month period, WLOS reported June 8.
WLOS reported that most of the complaints were related to billing issues, 23 percent were concerns over quality of care, 16 percent were related to cost of service, 7 percent were from employees or former employees of Mission Health and 5 percent were related to charity care requirements.
“It’s a concerning number, 116 over a year,” Attorney General Josh Stein told WLOS. “That’s a lot, so we’re sharing our serious concerns with the management of the health system and we are going to be on top of this to the extent we possibly can.”
Mr. Stein told the publication that his office recently dedicated one of his employees to keeping track of all the complaints about Mission Health.
Mission Health was acquired by Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare in 2019. HCA agreed to certain commitments as part of the deal, including keeping major Mission Health facilities open and continuing to provide certain services.
Since the acquisition, there have been a number of physician exits from the health system, and an independent monitor is looking into the reason behind the exits.
Mission Health shared the following statement with WLOS:
“Since January of 2021, we are aware of 15 complaints made to the Attorney General’s office, nine of which were related to billing and all of which have been resolved. We address every issue the Attorney General’s office brings to our attention promptly—both with them and the patient. Our patient care is our first priority. We strongly encourage everyone to contact us directly any time there is a concern so we can address it with them immediately and personally.
“Going back to 2020, the majority of billing concerns were made shortly after acquisition of Mission and primarily regarded questions around changes to medical practice operations and a variety of billing issues all of which were resolved. Any patient or guarantor with billing questions or concerns should contact 833-323-0834 and we are happy to discuss, answer any questions you may have, and seek resolution where needed. Further, we have an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, where people can reach out to us on any matter.”
Chicago-based CommonSpirit and Blue Shield of California expanded a new billing program to 20 Dignity Health hospitals, the organizations said Jan. 11.
The Member Payments billing program aims to create faster and more transparent billing processes for Blue Shield of California members who receive care at Dignity facilities and owe money after their insurance is processed. CommonSpirit is the parent organization of Sacramento, Calif.-based Dignity.
Under the program, Dignity can get a patient’s portion of a bill at the time of claim adjudication. Patients who receive care from a Dignity facility get a monthly bill from Blue Shield of California. Through that bill, patients can then pay for their cost-sharing amount in full or through installments.
The program, announced in 2018, was launched in September 2019 by Dignity, CommonSpirit, Blue Shield of California and technology startup company Ooda Health. The program’s 12-month pilot started at two hospitals in Sacramento and grew to six hospitals by the end of the pilot year.
The addition of 20 Dignity hospitals comes after the process was found to streamline cost-sharing payments, resulting in a 92 percent satisfaction rate from patients who used the platform, the organizations said.
Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.
By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association.
A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond.
Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.
While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.
The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.
All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation.
Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.
1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.
The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.
Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated.
2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury.
COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.
If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.
Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.
The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.
After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.
3. The tech giants are coming.
Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers.
Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.
Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.
The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.
It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services.
4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions.
If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.
Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.
Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments.
5. Consolidation is coming.
Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.”
All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..
6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.
The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.
While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.
As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.
Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.
While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.