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Bracing for the new normal in healthcare delivery

COVID-19 has taught some harsh lessons that will change healthcare delivery forever.

The novel coronavirus that later got termed as COVID-19 had claimed over 400,000 lives at the time this article was being written. As the virus spread across the world, it stretched healthcare systems and facilities beyond what most of us had ever imagined. As the world prays for recovery, the private healthcare industry is praying too. There are pressures around survival as the dynamics of running these institutions have changed rapidly and significantly. Here is what the new normal will entail for the healthcare providers.

Cashflow precedence

To ride this storm, healthcare providers will need to ensure cash availability in the short term at least. With a drastic drop in OPD patients and with elective surgeries non-existent for a period of two months or more, the hospitals have not invoiced the amounts that they were used to. This will have a ramification in the coming months. The money will not be coming in the way it used to. There is also a strong probability that the penchant towards consuming healthcare will be dented for a long period even beyond the pandemic. This will continue to challenge the providers and their cashflows.

The providers will want to be paid faster by the third-party payers. They will also try and push their payouts to the vendors as far in the future as they can. Some of them will turn towards banks and other sources for ensuring cash in the short term.

Almost all players in the industry will be pushed to have a hard look at their cost structures. Already, as this piece is being written, there are talks about salary rationalisations and right-sizing in some healthcare groups in the region. On the clinical side, the biggest brunt will be borne by the departments and personnel who work in specialities, which see more of ‘discretionary,’ non-urgent patients. On the non-clinical side, we will see rightsizing and higher salary reductions in the support functions. Hospitals will want to preserve the essentials and let go of the non-obligatory functions and personnel.

Hospitals have already reduced inventory levels for some of the consumables and medicines. This is likely to continue for many more months to come. Suppliers will have to look at providing alternate and additional categories of goods to their regular buyer hospitals, and that too, at extended credit periods.

Technology transition

There is a lot of talk about providing the remote health of late. Many thinkers have predicted that this trend will continue to garner interest and investments in future. They are right in their thinking. With people apprehensive of going to a hospital or a clinic unless it is very necessary, a remote health platform provides them with an alternative solution.

One of the services which has been in demand is teleconsultations with doctors. The magnitude of the sharp rise in demand can be assessed by the fact that analysts have predicted 200 million virtual visits globally this year, as opposed to the original forecast of 36 million. Within the GCC regions, there has been a surge in teleconsultation requests. Regulators have amended the framework for these online doctor consults in some geographies in GCC. Providers are reporting that apart from seeking doctors advise, patients also opt for the online consultations for follow-up on treatment and for second opinions.

One more technological advancement in clinical care will be in the area of remote health monitoring. There was sporadic and sluggish progress in this field before the COVID-19 era in the region. With a high burden of chronic ailments like diabetes and hypertension, remote monitoring platforms are seeing a stable growth in demand. According to various reports, the remote health monitoring market will grow at a CAGR of around 15 per cent for the coming five years.

Industry experts also predict several new technology-related innovations in the new normal after COVID-19. Remote monitoring of non-critical home care patients is one such example. There is also talk of intensive care units that can be managed remotely by consultants. We have also seen some initial trends in remote managing of mental health patients.

We will also witness a higher demand for wearables and mobile health apps. There is a renewed and more proactive mindset towards preventive health since the last few months. This is likely to continue, hence, augmenting the need for mobile health apps and gadgets.

The transition towards an amplified use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on the anvil as well. With various online platforms, new data and algorithms are possible, thus aiding the accuracy of diagnosis and prognosis. The new era will see healthcare providers and their embracing AI as a usual practice rather than a novelty.

As time goes by, we are likely to see many firsts in the region pertaining to technology.

Redefining operations

Running hospitals will never be the same again. The pandemic has taught many lessons to the leaders and administrators who run healthcare establishments. There is a new realisation among the administrators that many functions can actually be performed remotely. It is not necessary, for say, the staff payroll manager to be in the office every day from morning to evening. The same is true for some of the accountants in the system. Invoicing to the insurance companies need not be done from the premises and need not be a completely manual process.

In other words, work from home and automation will be the new normal. Work from home also augurs well for reduced office space and overheads, hence, cost optimisation. Providers will need to create a schedule for rotations and even perpetual work from home scenarios for select employees and departments.

Providers will also embrace automation in a bid to enhance efficiency and reduce mid to long term costs. There are plenty of options being explored already. For example, a hospital group is testing automated closure of books of accounts. In addition, more and more hospitals are embarking on fully automating their pharmacies. A few providers have also expressed interest in automating service level costs so that they can have a handle on how much each procedure costs them.

The modern healthcare systems will have costs at the centre of almost everything that they do. As long as patient safety and treatment outcomes are not compromised, hospitals will look to hang on to the cash and reduce the payouts wherever they can.

COVID-19 has taught some harsh lessons that will change a few things forever. We can conclude that the new normal in healthcare delivery is here to stay.

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Vivek Shukla

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