As the second wave of COVID-19 has peaked or is nearing its apex in many areas of the country, healthcare organizations aren’t congratulating themselves on a job well done —though kudos are richly deserved. They’ve already moved on to organizing vaccinations and thinking about how to dig out of the severe clinical, operational, and financial disruptions caused by the pandemic, and how to mitigate similar disruptions from a future public health emergency or an entirely different type of crisis.

From interviews and work with leading health systems across the country, we’ve gained a clear understanding of how the access center can and should be an integral part of a health system’s transition to the “next normal” and beyond.

Near term: Instilling trust and managing the surge

Our conversations with health system leaders have uncovered significant concerns pertaining to the immediate future.

First and foremost is the issue of consumer trust. Do people feel safe enough to visit a clinic or hospital emergency department for their routine or urgent care needs? Certainly, facilities are implementing stringent policies and protocols to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and many organizations are publicizing these efforts to help instill consumer confidence.

Access centers can augment trust-building initiatives by spotlighting the clinical experience of their agents. As patients and family members get increasingly comfortable regarding the safety of returning to a hospital or clinic, another major challenge may rear its head: a surge in demand for postponed services, ranging from wellness visits and elective procedures, to treatments for serious health conditions. Interestingly, many health system leaders tell us they also expect a spike in ED visits by patients who delayed seeking medical attention and are now experiencing an acute health situation.

Whether healthcare facilities are operating under normal or crisis conditions, a surge in demand shines an especially bright light on the value of a well-run access center.

During times of high demand, the access center can efficiently manage patient transfers from EDs and other facilities to the most appropriate care setting without delay. Ideally, access center agents will possess real-time visibility of all beds within a health system, along with clear sight lines to the availability of physicians, equipment, and other resources.

Coupling this visibility with a robust analytics solution equips decision-makers with a wealth of valuable data as they respond to a rapidly changing care delivery landscape. For instance, being able to quickly identify a sharp increase in the demand for behavioral health or other services allows a health system to ramp up the appropriate staffing to meet the need. At a high level, analytics can fuel decisions that lead to faster transfer cycles, more effective load balancing across facilities, and improved clinical outcomes.

Next normal: Redefining business as usual

One noteworthy outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has required health systems to rethink and reformulate long-standing practices. Many of these changes undoubtedly will become permanent in some form. One such fundamental change driven by the pandemic has been the increasing reliance on telehealth services, a trend that most assuredly will become more prominent in the months and years to come.

The pandemic has also dictated substantial changes in patient transfer patterns, especially with the designation of certain facilities or hospital floors as COVID-19 treatment centers. Patients who previously might have been transferred to a hospital close to home now may be transported to a more distant hospital within the health system, helping to ensure that no single facility is overwhelmed. Real-time visibility of beds, physician schedules, and other resources plays a critical role in the ability to efficiently accomplish transfers across a large, geographically dispersed health system.

Other aspects of healthcare delivery will not — and should not — change. This includes keeping patients within their “home” health system whenever possible. By expediting and streamlining transfers within a health system, access centers help ensure greater patient retention, contributing to enhanced continuity of care and increased revenue capture.

Future disruptions: Maintaining a steady course

Health system leaders have told us in no uncertain terms that they must respond differently to the next crisis, whether it’s the next wave of COVID-19 cases, a different pandemic, a national emergency, or a natural disaster. For the sake of their communities and their financial viability, they simply cannot shut down service lines.

Clearly, they’ve learned crucial lessons from their COVID-19 experiences and are better prepared for disruptive events down the road.

Access centers are ideally suited to play an active role in these readiness initiatives, given their position at the juncture of a health system’s clinical and operational activities. For example, real-time bed visibility enables access center agents to safely and swiftly transfer patients to the best care setting, while ensuring optimal load balancing, even amid the most tumultuous conditions.

If the health system’s access solution uses a secure cloud-based architecture, the organization has the flexibility to deploy it in virtually any location, even a temporary field hospital, within a matter of hours or days instead of weeks or months.

For most sectors of society, the “next normal” is being redefined almost on a daily basis. The extreme volatility and rapid pace of change demand bold new ways of thinking and on-the-fly adjustments. Nowhere is this truer than in healthcare, where access centers have the opportunity to serve as shining role models for change management in their organizations.

Is your access center up for the challenges of “what’s next?” For assistance, contact us.

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