Are agency IT infrastructures ready to meet coronavirus telehealth challenge?

The coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves across the country’s entire healthcare industry. Health agencies at every level of government have responded quickly by committing to deliver uninterrupted, first-rate and safe care through telehealth and telemedicine.

The transformation underway at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) underscores the challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 is presenting to the healthcare industry, which is looking to re-think and re-imagine how to provide care to patients remotely. Even going back to pre-pandemic times, in November 2019, the VA announced that 900,000 veterans used its telehealth services in the 2019 fiscal year, a 17 percent increase over the year before.

Telehealth has long been an area of focus for the VA as some veterans are unable to make their appointments at an agency site. The endeavor helps the organization better serve patients in rural America by extending the reach of specialists to where they are needed, critical to supporting veterans who may not live in close proximity to a clinician or those suffering from emotional challenges as a result of their service.

The VA is not the only federal agency adapting to this need. Earlier this year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for its part, waived restrictions on telehealth services “so that beneficiaries can receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility.”

Meeting the Telehealth Challenge

Telehealth challenges for healthcare CIOs extend far beyond simply using technology to connect doctors with patients. Other obstacles include patient identification and tracking, managing communications between sites, as well as the impact of remote workers and how organizations can protect data and meet compliance requirements. To be successful amid these circumstances, IT infrastructure and data must be scalable, available and adaptable to evolving healthcare provider needs and use cases.

Scalability

Meeting rapidly expanded remote telework and telehealth will test the role of cloud infrastructure to support unprecedented scalability needs. The ability to scale quickly has never been in more demand. Healthcare stakeholders will also need the cloud for high availability and accessibility of data despite its volume, velocity and variety. Healthcare organizations are already leveraging the cloud for foundational data-heavy health IT technologies (electronic medical records, patient portals, mobile apps, medical devices with IoT technology, etc.), but scaling IT infrastructure rapidly, cost-feasibly and securely is critical to powering the growth of telehealth services we will see in the months and years to come.

Lisa Hines, former director of telehealth for the Greenville Health System and strategic advisor to NetApp, recently noted, “One customer we recently spoke with had 1,500 employees working remotely at the start of the crisis and anticipates the number will grow to 7,000 over the course of the upcoming week. That need to quickly scale a virtual infrastructure with flexibility and secure access to data is incredibly important to these customers.”

Scalability also applies to the telehealth workforce. Organizations delivering telehealth are turning to Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to enable workforces to remotely access crucial applications, data and systems from home, their laptops and any mobile device. VDI has been critical in enabling agencies to quickly turn up telehealth services and applications without embarking on extensive, expensive retrofits to legacy infrastructure.

Availability

Scaling infrastructure isn’t just a nice-to-have requirement of mass-market telehealth; it is essential if medical professionals are to securely and rapidly access data from any location and device. As agencies rely on diverse infrastructures that encompass public cloud, hybrid cloud and on-premises data center environments, they must be able to control, integrate, move and consistently manage all of this data.

In other words, a “data fabric” is necessary to deliver information where, when and how it is needed for patient services. A data fabric simplifies healthcare IT and provides a scalable, flexible foundation for secure patient data. Simplifying and integrating data management will empower healthcare organizations to handle exponential telehealth data growth, reduce data storage costs, improve operational efficiencies and accelerate time to market for innovative telehealth and telemedicine services. Finally, sensitive health data can be securely stored and managed throughout the data’s lifecycle as defined in retention policies to maintain compliance with regulations.

Adaptability

Scaling to support traditional telehealth is further challenged as the VA and other health organizations (public and private) look at ways to adapt to emerging use cases that are being fully re-imagined. For example, the VA put out a response plan that, among other things, calls for VA clinics to shift to an “all telehealth mode” and increase their usage of virtual care to screen veterans at home before they go to a VA facility. Telehealth and telemedicine will look different six months from now as agencies continue to adapt to what works best for patients and care providers. IT infrastructure must be flexible and adaptable to future use cases that are being envisioned today.

From our own observations, agencies are stepping up to meet the telehealth challenge that has emerged virtually overnight. At the same time, agencies are looking ahead to future requirements by identifying digital infrastructure technologies that can deliver superior patient outcomes.

Chris Ginder is regional director for Civilian Agencies at NetApp. Jim Jessup is a major account manager at NetApp.

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