Like many hospital systems, the Saint Luke University Health Network has been “indulging in” the use of telehealth services for several years, says Dr. James Balschi, the network’s medical information director. The technology supported specialist consultations at 12 hospitals in St.Luke and more than 300 care centers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but the entire system was less than 10 telehealth sessions per day.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early March and the system, which is serving a large number of travelers to New York City, is beginning to prepare for the worst. In three days, Saint-Luc trained 1,900 employees to conduct remote visits using Microsoft Teams, which until then had been used primarily by IT and marketing departments.
“It was a lifeboat for our organization,” Balchi says, noting that the system had more than 100,000 telehealth sessions in the next two months to expand the reach of Teams. “We were fortunate to have this tool on our belt and were able to update it quickly. Often times a day, we were communicating through hospitals about modifying the way we treat patients in real time. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t have the Teams infrastructure.”
As the pandemic progressed and it became clear that both patients and staff were safer to stay at home, Saint-Luc and hospitals across the country expanded the use of collaboration tools, such as Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, to provide virtual support for care efforts, medical consultations, and even day-to-day operations.
Hospital Scales Up Microsoft Teams to Support Telehealth
Like St.Luke, Stony Brook Medicine Teams used as part of its Microsoft Office 365 platform, but did not adopt it widely before March 2020, according to Dr. Gerald Kelly, chief information officer in the healthcare system. That quickly changed for the Long Island-based organization, which put teams in place for a variety of uses, including booking and making virtual care appointments, as well as supporting an accident command center, organizing employee meetings and even mindfulness sessions to assist employees. Manage stress.
Kelly says the setup requires more than just providing access to the platform. Staff needed to know how teams could support collaboration, whether that was sharing documents, sending secure text messages, holding internal meetings, or communicating with patients.
We had access to a complete workforce that had never used telemedicine before. We had to train finance professionals on how to communicate virtual. We had to train human resources how to work from home, “he says.
Likewise, WakeMed Health and Hospitals have been using the Webex “intermittently,” primarily to reach out to external stakeholders, says Peter Marks, the organization’s vice president and chief information officer.
When the hospital in North Carolina was closed to all patients except for COVID-19, Marks says, use of the collaborative tool went into “hyperdrive.” WakeMed was lucky that Webex accounts were already created and some of the 11,000 employees in the system had already used them.
“Like anything else, the technology was there, but it was a dormant giant until it was used up,” he says. “It was a bit off-set at first, but training, time and creativity took care of things.”
With transformation occurring so rapidly in response to COVID-19, healthcare organizations are preparing for what ICD analyst Wayne Kurtzman calls digital parity: the ability of all workers, not just knowledge workers, to connect with the technology they need from any device. “A lot of people needed a reason to move into a digital world, which is why attitudes and behaviors changed,” he says.