Healthcare’s Return to Work: 4 Questions for a Post-COVID World

July 14, 2020
5 Minute Read

If America’s healthcare and life sciences sectors today look like a split screen of two different realities—don’t adjust your set. That’s exactly what it is. Two realities.

On the one side are states like those in the Northeast hit with a COVID-19 tsunami in the spring but are now recording lows. On the other are states including some in the South and parts of the West currently setting record highs. It’s all fluid. In fact, by the time you read this, the situation may have changed yet again.

While no one knows how much longer this global pandemic will last, this much is certain: it will end at some point. But that begs an important question: Given the profound transformations these sectors have experienced the past five months, does it make sense to go back to the pre-COVID-19 world of early March—or—apply instead the lessons learned during the pandemic to emerge more agile, more efficient, and more secure once it’s all over?

Healthcare providers, payers and life sciences companies opting for the former are missing what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Those choosing the latter are on the right track, but still need to plan efficiently.

In our experience, we’ve been asking four main questions to get clients thinking about the post-pandemic world and start developing decision-making models to help them adjust to a world where workplaces and workforces have shifted due to COVID-19, but where they also wish to remain in as much control as possible.

“There’s a natural tendency to go back to the way things used to be yet precedent should never be an impediment for the opportunity to make real progress.”

What COVID-19-Related Initiatives Worked and What’s Worth Keeping?

Almost all healthcare providers, payers and life sciences companies were forced to adjust to the new realities of this pandemic. They were often improvising in the back office while medical colleagues saved lives on the frontline. In many cases, it meant wholesale changes including work-from-home arrangements; tech issues including set-up, information sharing, data security; ensuring HIPAA compliance; alternating schedules and adjusting workplaces for social distancing.

What’s key is understanding what worked, why, and management sometimes gathering the courage to say: “That change actually worked better than we expected. Let’s continue doing this.” There’s a natural tendency to go back to the way things used to be yet precedent should never be an impediment for the opportunity to make real progress, real improvements. It’s critical to conduct a thorough assessment to determine which COVID-19-related changes should be discontinued and which are worth keeping.

“With several months of experience now behind us, it’s time to make business process optimization less of an exercise in panic and more of an exercise in permanence.”

If work-from-home had no impact on operations and even helped you save on fixed real estate costs, it’s obviously worth considering making this permanent. Same for data security and privacy. Many providers needed to adjust their data security and privacy protocols so employees could work from home.

For healthcare in particular, adhering to strict HIPAA requirements often meant tech upgrades to ensure full compliance. Since the investment has already been made, the argument for continuing to work from home just got stronger. But so too has the need for maintaining security for work-from-home employees as well.

Is Your Business Process Optimization Plan Up to Date?

Today’s pandemic has been a once-in-a-lifetime stress test, forcing many healthcare organizations to reevaluate their business processes—often from top-to-bottom. Key areas under the microscope have included reevaluating workforce planning and capacity strategies, ensuring compliance audits, improving claims processing, optimizing clinical trials, planning and implementing greater use of automation to improve efficiency and more.

Early in the pandemic, improvisation was needed to adjust to the new realities. With several months of experience now behind us, it’s time to make business process optimization less of an exercise in panic and more of an exercise in permanence.

A healthcare client we work with is now using a dynamic capacity model allowing them to evaluate the impact of different scenarios including the percentage of staff affected by COVID-19, work-from-home staff productivity, how to handle large volumes of new enrollments as well as other factors. This solution—which increased staff utilization while reducing the need for contract resources—now ensures that this organization has adequate staff and vendor support to manage pandemic-related changes no matter what the scenario.

Do You Have a Cost & Recovery Plan?

Your bottom line is likely changing—perhaps significantly. In fact, even before COVID-19 hit, as many as one in five hospitals were already on the brink of financial insolvency. Worse, we simply don’t know what the final financial tally will be until it’s all over. In practical terms, as cases rise in some areas there will likely be more COVID-19-related coding errors as well as missing or improper patient flags with patients visiting healthcare practitioners for other consults or procedures.

Bottom line: missed revenue and delayed or disrupted clinical trials at a time when decreasing revenue coupled with rising costs are already an issue. There’s already been a major uptick in disability and worker comp claims as well as increased telemedicine claims, with many insurers designating—or manually tracking—pandemic patients. A staggering number of clinical trials (70% globally) have been halted and must be re-engineered in the new world of work.

Cost savings are possible on several fronts. Strengthening data analytics as well as medical review services to support pre-payment claims reviews can translate into more claims processed—positively impacting your bottom line. Better resource management planning can lessen the need for hiring contract resources. In the case of one client we worked with, these resource improvements alone resulted in a 20% budget savings as internal capacity was used more efficiently. Virtual clinical trials and optimization can accelerate time-to-market and reduce development cost through process improvement.

Are You Prepared for a Possible Resurgence?
No one wants to think about it. But you must. The only comparably sized pandemic in relatively modern times was the 1918 Spanish Flu. Back then, there were far more deaths in the second wave in autumn than during the first wave in spring. While the past doesn’t always repeat itself, this much is true: Fall is traditionally flu season and this year we could still easily be coping with COVID-19 without a cure or vaccine during “normal” flu season.

Are you prepared? Do you have an operational plan in place ready to go should the next wave hit? Are enough of your employees already working from home so operations won’t be impacted, or will you need to shift again? Are your supply chains ready for the needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)? Are your clinical operations set up for successful virtual trials? History, does not always repeat itself exactly. But as some have noted, it often does rhyme. Be ready.

“Now’s the time to decide which of the two screens your organization will be on.”

The New Split Screen

Today’s COVID-19 reality is indeed a split screen, but there will come a day when it’s one screen only: the pandemic will be totally over. We certainly hope sooner than later. But there could easily be a different kind of split screen when that day arrives.

On one side may be healthcare providers, payers and life sciences companies who went back to the ways things were pre-COVID in early March. Status-quo ante-pandemic. On the other screen, will be those organizations who learned from the pandemic using it as an opportunity to emerge better than before in terms of operations, efficiency, compliance, etc.

Now’s the time to decide which of the two screens your organization will be on. As management guru Peter Drucker once said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” If there was ever a time when healthcare organizations had the opportunity to create their future, this is it.

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Joni Noel

SVP, RGP Healthcare & Private Equity
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