Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Lot Has Changed In Healthcare. What’s Likely To Stay?

A photo of the Intermountain Alta View Clinic building.
Wikimedia Commons
Some changes the healthcare industry was forced to make during the coronavirus pandemic are likely to stay, like increased telehealth services and more collaboration between providers.

The healthcare industry has faced a number of challenges adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced hospitals, testing labs, insurance companies and public health departments to make large-scale changes.

Early on, hospitals had to shut down non-emergency procedures, leaving many patients stranded and finances tight. They’ve since had to open new or modify facilities to isolate patients and set up new systems of transferring them across the state.

In other parts of the industry, insurance companies had to figure out new billing practices, particularly with evolving guidance from the federal government over which coronavirus-related treatments and testing options they had to cover.

Learning From The Pandemic

Meeting those challenges hasn’t been easy, said infectious disease expert Dr. Eddie Stenehjem at a panel discussion Wednesday. But it has shown healthcare providers how quickly the industry can adapt and make lasting improvements.

“Just take a moment and look at the advancements that we've had in science in terms of identifying and treating patients with this disease,” he said. “We had no therapeutics for [COVID-19] in January. And now we have an FDA-approved drug. We have steroids.”

Those same strategies and platforms that were rapidly developed to treat the disease, he said, could also be used to treat drug-resistant bacterias. It might also help get drug makers and insurance companies on board with paying for costly new or yet-to-be developed antibiotics, which doctors typically recommend patients only take for short periods of time.

“That is not a profitable business,” he said. “But we need to identify novel mechanisms to incentivize drug manufacturers to get into that business and payers to say ‘Yeah, I get it. That's an $8,000, 7-day regimen and that's OK.’”

Another positive change has been the newfound appreciation for testing, not just for the coronavirus but all kinds of diseases, said Christine Ginocchio with Biofire Diagnostics. Testing can help patients avoid costly or ineffective treatments, she said, but was hard to get insurance companies to cover before the pandemic.

“We can't get health insurance companies to pay for diagnostics,” she said. “A test ends up being the cheap part of the patient care. You can reduce the length of stay, you reduce antibiotic use, you prevent secondary infections.”

Other changes, however, are already here. Stenehjem pointed to expanded and improved telehealth services, which caregivers have gotten better at providing and patients seem to want more and more.

A Fractured System And Future Outlook

The pandemic also revealed just how fractured the healthcare system was, with numerous hospital systems and segments of the industry working in silos, and forced providers to work together. Intermountain Healthcare, for example, announced last month it was planning to merge with Sanford Health, one of the country’s largest rural healthcare providers. The deal was framed as a strategic partnership to make healthcare cheaper and more efficient, rather than a financial necessity.

That collaboration between the various parts of the industry is likely to continue, said Stephen Foxley, government affairs director for Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Still, Stenehjem said it’s also hard to look too far into the future, as providers are still in the middle of Utah’s worst spike in COVID-19 cases. The Utah Department of Health reported another near-record number of confirmed cases Wednesday and what he called a “mind-blowingly high” test positivity rate of 32%.

“We are at a healthcare crisis right now,” he said. “At the rate of hospitalizations, we are going to be out of healthcare workers that care for people in our beds.”

He said 2021 should be a better year than this one, with a vaccine on its way and improved testing and treatment. But things won’t be back to normal anytime soon.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.