COVID-19: 5 top lessons learned in healthcare
With COVID-19 vaccines widely available and infection rates going down, healthcare providers have successfully moved past the worst of the pandemic.
In response to the public health emergency, practices made sweeping changes to the way they deliver care, manage billing, and communicate with patients. While certain changes were suitable for the short-term, others have paved the way for long-term practice improvements.
Read on for five of the top COVID-19 lessons learned in healthcare.
Offering virtual visits
As providers and patients sought alternatives to in-person visits, telehealth experienced a boom during the pandemic. By March 2021, 61.1% of Americans had completed a telehealth appointment, compared to just 19.5% a year before, according to a study by Sykes Enterprises.
Many practices that launched telehealth in response to the pandemic now plan to deliver care via virtual visits on a permanent basis, based on its benefits.
Telehealth can help patients access care when transportation is unavailable, and providers can encourage patients to stay current on their preventive care appointments using telehealth. In these ways, virtual care can provide a means to overcome healthcare disparities affecting underserved populations.
Telehealth also can help boost efficiency and cash flow. Practices can add telehealth appointments outside existing office hours to expand their billable time, while reducing overhead such as exam rooms or staff needed during these extended hours.
By March 2021, 87.8% of patients said they wanted to continue using telehealth beyond the pandemic, compared with the year-ago period, when 65.6% of patients expressed hesitancy about telehealth. “Americans are overwhelmingly opting for virtual visits,” the Sykes study concluded.
Learn more about Greenway Telehealth™, our HIPAA-compliant, integrated solution.
Managing the challenges of telehealth
While telehealth offers many advantages, it may require learning and adjustment along the way. This makes handling the challenges of virtual care a top COVID-19 lesson learned for many in healthcare.
Consider the experience of Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital, an organization serving a largely rural population in North Carolina and Virginia through a network of 23 locations that offer specialty, primary care, urgent care, and express care.
“Telemedicine has been a challenge,” LeAnn Hooker, Clinical Coordinator Administrator, said in a 2020 blog on finding the telehealth-life balance. “It’s definitely been a challenge in a rural area, where patients struggle with technology and having access.”
Based on this feedback, the organization focused on education. For Hugh Chatham, teaching patients how to use the technology was a digital health lesson learned.
If your practice is considering implementing or expanding telehealth, keep these questions in mind:
- What problems are you looking to resolve, and what goals do you want to achieve?
- What kinds of workflows will telehealth introduce?
- How will you educate the care team?
- How will you make the case to your practice?
- How will you seek out and evaluate potential vendors?
Although many practices have made the switch to telehealth, decision-makers continue to grapple with questions about regulation and reimbursement as they consider their long-term strategy.
In January 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) relaxed telehealth requirements following the declaration of a COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). Since then, guidelines from CMS and insurance payers have continued to change, making decision-makers eager to know what to expect.
More recently, a bipartisan group of 50 U.S. senators introduced the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2021. The telehealth legislation, the latest iteration of the CONNECT for Health Act that first debuted in 2016, draws on previous versions, as well as the guideline changes over the past year.
The bill aims to make telehealth regulation flexibilities permanent and expand telehealth coverage through Medicaid — boosting patient outcomes and making it easier for patients to connect with providers. Read more about what the CONNECT for Health Act means for you.
Beyond telehealth, as patients return for in-person care, they will expect their practices to communicate and follow safety precautions.
Digital health check-in tools can increase efficiency in the front office and reduce wait times. In the era of COVID-19, practices used digital check-in to prevent long lines and minimize face-to-face interactions.
When it comes to the waiting room layout, it’s possible to encourage social distancing while creating a relaxing environment.
“A big thing for us … is just keeping patients out of the waiting area. We try to get them as quickly back into our room as we possibly can.”Tara Foncannon, Director of Clinical Operations and Strategic Initiatives at Evansville Surgical Associates
Removing chairs is a simple strategy to encourage social distancing in the waiting room. You can also pair this tactic with a backup plan, such as an overflow room.
Tara Foncannon, Director of Clinical Operations and Strategic Initiatives at Evansville Surgical Associates, described adjusting her practice’s waiting room layout.
“A big thing for us … is just keeping patients out of the waiting area,” Tara said. “We try to get them as quickly back into our room as we possibly can.”
Whether your practice requires patients to wear masks or restricts family members or children from coming along, make sure patients are aware of the new guidelines. Using patient engagement tools, you can communicate new — or changing — protocols before they arrive for their appointment.
Patient engagement tools have also proved useful to practices amid the vaccination effort. Community Health Centers of Northeast Oklahoma sent broadcast texts and phone calls through Greenway Patient Messaging to raise awareness about vaccine availability. Read more about our clients’ vaccine administration efforts.
Working the billing backlog to maintain cash flow
COVID-19 response and its resulting social distancing and visit postponement requirements caused patient volume to plummet early into the pandemic. According to an April 7, 2020, MGMA Stat poll, 97% of healthcare leaders reported a drop in patient volume.
Even though practices have resumed in-person visits and elective procedures, many continue to struggle financially. If this is the case for your practice, try tackling the billing backlog. This COVID-19 lesson helped many healthcare practices stay afloat.
Here are a few quick tips:
- To identify carriers with the shortest timely filing limitations, run an aging by carrier report.
- Review claims outstanding for carriers, first by date, then by balance, from highest to lowest.
- Work claims based on denial trends, such as eligibility issues related to failure of Medicaid or Medicare beneficiaries to send claims to correct payers.
- Instead of working one claim at a time, work the entire patient account to cover greater ground.
- After you complete your review, make necessary adjustments to claims you have determined not to be collectable.
Applying these healthcare claims management tips can help your practice meet goals for key performance indicators (KPIs) such as days in A/R and — if the claims are greater than 60 days — 0-60 aging.
Taking a big-picture approach to financial health
Achieving long-term financial health means managing the entire revenue cycle. Beyond working the billing backlog, it involves everything from scheduling appointments to coding to submitting claims, as well as understanding KPIs.
When it comes to revenue cycle management, the process typically boils down to these five services:
- Posting charges
- Submitting claims
- Reconciling claims
- Managing rejections
- Posting payments
Following through on this COVID-19 healthcare lesson isn’t always easy for a practice to handle on its own, especially one that may be reeling in the aftermath of a public health crisis.
Many have found relief partnering with a billing service that understands the changing dynamics of billing and stays up to date on the new rules and regulations. With an experienced team monitoring cash flow, providers can focus on patient care.
In response to the financial pressures placed on practices by the pandemic, Greenway rolled out GRS Select™, a new offering from our Greenway Revenue Services portfolio. GRS Select is a customizable revenue cycle management service designed to simplify billing, alleviate administrative burdens, and identify new revenue opportunities.
As practices move forward, they are applying lessons learned from the public health response to COVID-19. By recognizing which technology changes have been most effective, they can make long-term improvements, both for the financial health of their practice and the quality of patient care they provide.