by Teta Alim

Though HIMSS21 has wrapped up in Las Vegas, its digital sessions will be available through the end of September. 

This year’s hybrid healthcare IT conference and exhibition from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society featured sessions on emerging technologiesdata managementdigital transformationscybersecurity and virtual care.  

Here’s what the experts at HIMSS21 had to say about strengthening virtual care capabilities, from listening to patients to learning lessons from space. 

1. Increase Availability of Virtual Care Services    

During a digital panel session, patient consultant Stacy Hurt shared her personal experience with telemedicine. When her son, who is nonambulatory and immunosuppressed, had to see about 60 different specialists in 2006, she wanted to make some visits virtual, but was told it couldn’t be done. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated telemedicine, and more than a decade later, she’s hoping these advancements will stick around. 

“Just to know that we can have that option of telehealth for routine test results or follow-up visits, it eases our minds a lot,” said Hurt. 

However, with a “telehealth cliff” on the horizon, how can providers ensure continuity of virtual care services? If policies and regulations aren’t better streamlined and clarified, patients could experience a lot of confusion. 

American Well Chief Medical Officer Peter Antall said it is important for the federal government to act definitively, since commercial payers will fall in line with Medicare practices, and that all stakeholders should speak out on improving telehealth policies. 

“Imagine if, a year from now, there’s going to be a new regulation that bars anyone from doing online banking. How would consumers feel about having to go back to bank branches to do all their banking? That’s how we view this,” Antall said. 

“Always look at everything from a costumer perspective,” said Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan during a digital session with HIMSS CEO and President Hal Wolf. 

Yuan added that he predicts telemedicine will remain mainstream even after the pandemic ends. He reiterated the importance of security and privacy, especially for the healthcare industry.

“Healthcare is always a very important market for us,” Yuan said. “In the future, you feel like you can move the hospital to the home, and that is a great experience.”

Building up broadband capabilities across the country will be crucial to empowering expanded virtual care applications, from remote surgeries to eICUs, Yuan added. 

2. Advance Accessibility and Equity in Telehealth 

Providers need to also consider multiple aspects connected to accessibility. For instance, audio-only telehealth visits could lead to a two-tiered system of care: Though the former is more accessible, a video encounter provides more clinical information. However, it also requires better broadband capabilities and some troubleshooting know-how.   

Patients accessing Wi-Fi in public areas such as coffee shops or libraries poses a privacy concern, Hurt added. What’s more, if patients are in abusive relationships, they may not be able to discuss their health at home safely.  

Providers also need to better consider interpreter needs or American Sign Language accommodations. “Listen to your patients and make sure your patients have what they need to ensure a high-quality virtual visit,” Hurt said. 

At another digital session on technology solutions for older adults, Cherish Health CEO Sumit Nagpal said, “It’s a given that healthcare is coming home. By that, what I mean is not just that eventually, at some point, we will be doing hospital-level care in home settings, though that will happen eventually. But along the way, what I really mean is that we’re going to become much more proactive, much more predictive about identifying rising risk for people living in their own homes.”

Throwing new tech at issues related to the care of older adults can’t be the sole solution, added Lacuna Health CEO Brian Holzer. People need to be a part of the equation. “An artful combination” of data analytics, tech platforms and the human touch should come together to deliver new models of care that are not only cost effective but clinically effective, he added.

“We’re decades away from a full shift, if we ever get there, from fee-for-service to value-based care,” Holzer said. He added that he remains optimistic that investments in innovations will continue to bear fruit and slowly but steadily challenge the status quo. 

3. Take Remote Care Lessons from Space 

At a talk titled “Human Spaceflight: An Analog for Earth,” presented in person and also streamed online, NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins said that the preparation around healthcare for journeys beyond the International Space Station offers valuable lessons for parallel needs on Earth. 

“We’re looking for sustained lunar presence, but we also are pushing into deep space and we want to go to Mars,” Rubins said. “This is really going to drive a lot of changes in how we deliver medical care for astronauts, and it is a great paradigm to look at for remote capabilities on Earth.” 

As NASA and commercial spaceflight companies shoot for deep space exploration, remote care will need to develop even further. The pandemic highlighted the use of contactless and closed-loop technologies, and work around spaceflight can help continue to develop those technologies. 

For the most part, Rubins added, astronauts try to solve health issues by themselves on board, and they all have medical training.

When space voyages become longer, astronauts will need to rely on their own care and on delayed or asynchronous communications. “You can imagine this as a really great parallel for things going on on Earth. If you are not living near a large medical center, imagine the capabilities if we did have a way to synthesize drugs or consumables and get those to people,” Rubins said. 

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