How Patient Safety Will Evolve in a Post-COVID-19 World

By Peter Ziese

As the fight against COVID-19 presses on, patient safety remains a key focus in healthcare conversations around the world. In March 2020, the pandemic forced healthcare providers to quickly pivot existing care strategies and infection control protocols to address the influx of COVID-19 patients they were seeing, while also mitigating the spread of the coronavirus and continuing to provide acute care for non-COVID-19 patients.

As we move forward, reflecting on which patient safety tactics were most impactful across the last several months will not only help in our societal efforts to continue managing the virus and keeping patients safe, but also ensure we’re supporting our frontline workers in every way possible, both during this crisis and beyond. And to effectively address patient safety, we must look past the four walls of the hospital to consider how we are able to keep patients safe at home.

Ramping up in-hospital preparedness and safety

One of the biggest challenges at the beginning of COVID-19 was hospitals’ inability to scale up operations quickly enough to handle patient surges with constrained space, time, and resources. The industry was clearly not prepared to manage a health crisis of this magnitude. While this pandemic was unprecedented in our modern history of care, we must face the truth that we will confront other epidemics or health crises in our lifetimes, so we cannot ignore the lessons of the past year. In the future, having local stockpiles of PPE, monitors, and other medical supplies on demand will be essential to avoid repeating the struggle we faced during this pandemic. There is also a need for quickly scalable critical care solutions, as sourcing and configuring pieces of high-demand medical equipment when a surge hits is not efficient. To solve this challenge, more healthcare organizations will develop partnerships to enable ICU ramp-ups and help staff utilize hospital resources as economically as possible. Examples of such partnerships include kits that are easy to implement and help expand ICU equipment, and services that manage stockpiles so that tools and resources are ready to go when needed.

Beyond preparedness, while virtual care offerings have helped keep patients out of the hospital during the pandemic when possible, in-person care is still essential in many situations, and it is important that patients feel confident and safe when seeking it. Hospitals have revitalized their infection control protocols, decreasing touchpoints during patient care where possible or enacting disinfection procedures. Technology utilizing AI and predictive algorithms can also help doctors quickly identify who are the sickest patients and who can wait to receive care, and know how to triage—or isolate—these groups accordingly. While the current efforts to maintain physical separation and infection control communication are essential to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, these best practices will continue long past the pandemic to help maintain safety for patients and clinicians.

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) can also play a huge role in patient safety within the hospital by detecting and alerting a clinician to changes in a patient’s condition during their visit. These solutions let doctors view a patient’s data without having to be at the bedside, limiting their exposure to the virus while still enabling them to provide care.

From acute to chronic: Telehealth can keep people safe at home

Given how contagious the coronavirus is, and with hospitals facing unprecedented patient influxes, keeping patients safe in their homes and outside of the hospital whenever possible—including patients suffering from COVID-19 as well as from other chronic or complex illnesses—has been a critical challenge during the last several months. RPM and virtual care solutions have been pivotal in this effort and will continue to pay dividends moving forward. Such tools allow care teams to manage patient populations from afar and with hospital-grade accuracy and efficiency, all while keeping hospitals as safe environments reserved for the highest-acuity patients. Furthermore, supplementing in-person offerings with telehealth can not only save lives by detecting out-of-hospital patients whose conditions are worsening, but also safeguard against overextending scarce resources and help doctors determine who really needs to be admitted to the hospital.

For both COVID-19 patients and those with preexisting medical conditions or health issues unrelated to the coronavirus, RPM capabilities have proven crucial for mitigating virus spread. Virtual wellness checks can be conducted to make sure clinicians are consistently tracking patients’ conditions even while they can’t see patients in person. A pregnant woman, for example, may want to remain at home as long as possible during the pandemic to avoid going into a hospital that is managing a COVID-19 outbreak. RPM can allow her physician to conduct checkups virtually, both assessing her condition but also pre-conditioning and preparing her for eventually visiting the hospital to give birth. This method can be enabled through sensors and patient-owned technology. For patients with chronic conditions who may be avoiding in-person visits, an undetected change in their condition could result in an avoidable hospitalization. Telehealth solutions can also help clinicians monitor whether a chronic condition is becoming acute.

In-hospital visits will always be a component of patient care, but the ability to gather and assess patient data in a more holistic manner will shift how patients engage with their care to support better outcomes.

Keeping the patient at the center of care

The healthcare industry has learned valuable lessons from 2020. Takeaways from this past year will not only aid in efforts to continuously manage COVID-19, but will help serve patients in the years to come. Creating a health system that fosters connectivity and efficiency—through telemedicine and scalability efforts—will let doctors optimally care for patients with the utmost ability and effectiveness.

Peter Ziese is business leader of monitoring and analytics for Philips.