By Todd Brown
Health systems have long wrestled with Herculean financial and staff shortage pressures, but COVID-19 has exacerbated those headaches atop other concerns, like dwindling patient volume amid fears of contracting the virus in a hospital environment.
These new developments have brought to light a challenge unlike any other: In-house biomedical and clinical engineers have had to act quickly to bolster equipment productivity and increase patient throughput while reducing exposure risks for both patients and providers.
In what ways have health systems done that already, and what lessons could be gleaned as others follow suit?
Recently, health care leaders came together to explore those questions and others in GE Healthcare’s “The Future of Healthcare” webinar. Focusing on converging topics of post-pandemic regrowth, AI and intelligence-based health technologies, webinar speakers touched on various concerns affecting the sector – with efficiency a thematic undercurrent.
“Our customers are asking, how can you make our machines more productive – how can we interface with patients using innovative technology?” said Everett Cunningham, CEO of GE Healthcare in the U.S. and Canada. “The technology has to be simple. We always have to remember who’s on the other end of that technology: it’s the patient.”
And yet, in order to strike the ideal balance between efficacy, efficiency, and experience, it requires a great deal of attention on the backend – as well as tools, solutions and strategies to keep machines in service as intended. But with COVID-19, clinical engineers have the added responsibilities of achieving those goals in alignment with public health and infection control protocols.
Fortunately, many resources exist to help health systems address these growing demands – including remote diagnostics and repair, virtual training and real-time asset tracking.
1. Remote Medical Equipment Monitoring and Repair
Remote technologies haven’t taken the humans out of equipment service, but they have created new possibilities into where those humans can work. Downstream impacts of remote services mean that teams can more nimbly respond to potential problems from anywhere at any time. It also means they do not need to waste precious PPE to assess equipment.
Augmented by predictive technology (such as OnWatch), proactive monitoring platforms check system health between scheduled maintenance – enabling remote engineers to examine them without being physically present in the hospital or taking the equipment out of service for an extended time. Even before COVID-19, remote diagnostics enabled hospitals to reduce their unplanned downtime by 35 percent while speeding repair times up to 30 percent faster.
However, those capabilities offer new benefits in our shared new normal. For example, respiratory, cardiovascular and other complications of COVID-19 have added new pressures to imaging and other teams, with greater utilization in CT, MR and ultrasound fleets in addition to expected equipment like ventilators. As those machines work overtime, it expands the need for routine maintenance and replenishment of replacement parts. But the cost of downtime for these mission-critical fleets is the potential for reduced patient access to needed equipment.
The good news is that specific technologies (such as GE Healthcare’s Tube Watch) help keep the operations of health systems on track by predicting imminent tube failures days in advance, which allows enough time to order a new tube and preemptively reschedule patients to minimize disruptions in throughput.
2. Virtual Training for Clinicians and Engineers
Within the first few weeks of COVID-19, widespread interest in virtual care spiked – with some payers reporting growth in telemedicine claims that exceeded 5,000 percent or more.
During his session of the webinar, Adventist Health Chief Business Officer John Beaman elaborated on the impact telemedicine has had.
“Some of what we’ve seen here in the short-term is the glimpse of what is with us for the long-term in health care,” he said. “With COVID-19, we’ve seen a glimpse of the future, where hospitals will treat the sickest of the sick, with others cared for in the home environment.”
But the beneficial impacts of virtual models stretch far beyond individual patient encounters; they also play a role in equipment service by enabling remote and virtual training.
Take ventilators, for example, which were running nonstop in ICUs around the country. Many hospitals received shipments of them that far outpaced previous demand. And all that activity and utilization added new burdens to new operators who had never before worked on those specific models.
In normal times, new equipment would come with in-person manufacturer trainings so that clinicians and engineers could get up-to-speed with the technologies, try them out and ask questions about their use case. But that model just doesn’t hold up in a COVID-19 era – not only because stretched staff have no time for it, but because it adds to the pool of exposure risk.
Enter distance learning. Working together with manufacturers, many hospitals have taken advantage of on-demand technical training resources to educate in-house teams on installation, preventive maintenance, service and other topics. With the ability to train on the fly and even remotely ask questions of manufacturers in real-time, health systems can now have complete confidence in their in-house teams no matter how chaotic circumstances get.
3. Track Equipment with Real-Time Location Systems
Hospitals can also find efficiencies through asset tracking with real-time location systems (RTLS) technology. Such platforms tag fleets so that they’re easily found, helping to prevent the loss of or the hoarding of assets by clinical teams.
That kind of efficiency matters in any environment, but particularly busy ones amid COVID-19, where mobile machines move quickly from room to room. After all, knowing exactly where medical equipment is can mean the difference between timely cleaning, repairing and getting equipment back into service or leaving that equipment to sit idle and unused.
Using Every Tool in the Efficiency Toolbox
Indeed, in an environment as fast as the one caused by COVID-19 – potentially even more so as flu season approaches – biomedical teams need every tool in their efficiency toolbox to keep machines working for the good of patient care.
These, and other strategies, will prove all the more critical in the months and years ahead.
Todd Brown is vice president and general manager, U.S. and Canada service, GE Healthcare.
1. GE Healthcare Webinar, “The Future of Healthcare.”
2. GE White Papers – Proactive Digital Service for MR Scanners: Evaluating User Impact (2017); Determining the Benefits of Proactive Digital Service for Computed Tomography Scanners (2014).
3. Drees J. BCBS of Massachusetts telehealth visits spiked 5,100% in March: 3 notes. BeckersHospitalReview.com. https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/telehealth/bcbs-of-massachusetts-telehealth-visits-spiked-5-100-in-march-3-notes.html. Published April 13, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
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