Hospitals must plan for every possible emergency health scenario. When large numbers of gravely ill or injured patients begin flooding their Emergency Department, they need to be ready to respond without hesitation—lives are at stake.
Communities around the world experienced this almost simultaneously with COVID-19 outbreaks. Public health measures designed to reduce the spread—from mask wearing to full lockdowns—were not only meant to protect people’s health. They were also intended to prevent an overwhelming demand that would impact other aspects of local health systems. Big waves tend to swamp everything in their path.
Indeed, many hospitals delayed non-urgent treatments and surgeries to ensure there would be enough beds for COVID-19 patients and recruited health professionals from other departments to help treat them.
Early in the pandemic, the CDC also recommended that health care providers implement virtual methods of offering clinical services—specifically telehealth.
As the agency published in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: “Telehealth could have multiple benefits during the pandemic by expanding access to care…and reducing patient demand on facilities. Telehealth policy changes might continue to support increased care access during and after the pandemic.”
Surge Capacity Strategies
Every hospital has surge capacity strategies in place to manage sudden spikes in demand for their services. Viral outbreaks are only one potential cause. Catastrophes like a high-rise fire, severe weather event, industrial explosion or any disaster that impacts a large group of people in an area could require hospitals to treat more patients than their usual volume.
To expand capacity, a hospital has four options:
- Decrease demand (i.e. divert patients to another hospital)
- Establish alternate care facilities (like a field hospital or a hotel)
- Minimize resource consumption by admitted patients
- Establish treatment areas in unconventional locations within the hospital.
Many health systems have learned through managing the COVID-19 crisis that telehealth, including video conferencing, can play a vital role in surge capacity planning.
How Telehealth Expands Capacity
The Society of Critical Care Medicine recommends understanding and designing solutions for specific use cases, including:
- Teleconferencing with patients or expert consultants
- Remote patient monitoring
- Forecasting and triage
- Implementation of severity of illness scores (i.e. APACHE)
- Bedside clinical decision support
- Regional coordination of care
A component of pre-surge planning is to choose how telehealth programs will be implemented: Outward toward the community; inward toward units within the system; or into the homes of patients.
The right telehealth platform will accommodate all of these scenarios, with highly accessible user interfaces that simplify communication between patient and health care providers.
In the specific context of the pandemic, remote patient monitoring has helped protect nursing staff caring for patients in isolation rooms. But telemedicine allows health systems to load balance and offload clinical work from bedside clinicians. Remote clinicians can monitor and round on low- to moderate-risk patients and help triage bedside clinician activities.
Plan for the Next Surge
Every health crisis teaches us something new. One of the big lessons of COVID-19 pandemic has been the critical role of new technologies that enable health systems to minimize risks and manage capacity. With remote patient monitoring in place, health providers had the confidence to send recovering patients home 12 or 24 hours earlier, freeing up beds.
Hospitals have gained vital experience for post-pandemic planning. Expanding the use of remote patient monitoring and virtual health platforms helps prepare for the next crisis. When health care professionals of all stripes adopt and use the many forms of telemedicine, it increases their familiarity of its capabilities. When the next surge strains the capacity of health systems, they will be ready to respond with the best strategies at hand.