The pandemic is reshaping the future of healthcare—and healthcare technology management, in particular—in numerous ways. Here are some of them.

By Toni Mitchell and Keri Forsythe-Stephens

COVID-19 set off unprecedented changes in a wide range of fields, including healthcare technology management (HTM). It’s a fact that was driven home during a panel session at the virtual 2021 AAMI eXchange Rewired conference, titled “COVID-19’s Impact on the Future of Healthcare and HTM.” During it, panelists pontificated about the greatest changes brought on by the pandemic and which ones are here to stay. Here are some of the session highlights.

The Financial Impact

One panelist who had a lot to say about COVID-19’s impact on HTM was Donald Morge, a consultant at Sigma Health Consulting. “From having to physically distance ourselves and remember key protocols, to shifting our focus toward our critical care areas and working around facility lockdowns, the impact [of the pandemic] was seen and felt everywhere,” he said during the panel session.

Just look at the financial toll that COVID-19 took, panelists pointed out. Numerous healthcare facilities were forced to make difficult cuts while still working to provide quality services to patients, panelists revealed.

Third-party service organizations were also jolted by the weight of COVID-19, according to Jessyka Wright, director of clinical engineering at Crothall Healthcare Technology Solutions. In addition to being locked out from some hospitals, some service providers had to reduce their workforce via furloughs or layoffs as well as revise staff schedules. “They were trying to reduce services—industry-wide—not only for our industry but for other service industries as well,” Wright said during the panel. “So it was a struggle to keep up the demand of staying within regulations, while also reducing your services due to a financial need of your institution.”

Panelist Jennifer DeFrancesco, associate director at Ohio-based Dayton VA Medical Center, shared Wright’s sentiments. “Organizations found themselves struggling financially because some of the things in their portfolio that made them money, they weren’t able to have over a period of time,” she said. Financially, I think what we will see, moving forward, is how healthcare organizations rebound.” DeFrancesco said she expects to see a surge of mergers and acquisitions in the future—particularly among rural hospitals.

Isolation and the Mental Toll of COVID

Being forced to do more with less was a theme throughout the panel discussion—with panelists saying they often felt stretched thin with the ever-growing demand for their services. Suffice it to say that such an environment led to emotional stress as well. “For our industry, as well as all others in healthcare, I think the biggest impact would probably be our mental health,” Wright said.

In addition to affecting HTM professionals’ mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting lockdowns and social distancing protocols—prompted many biomed departments to shift their focus to the role of supporting critical care needs. Some facilities even created new areas specifically to address COVID-19. Morge said HTM professionals were instrumental in setting up these areas and really proved their worth during the height of the pandemic. 

“By and large, we have been able to step up to the plate in an emergency,” Morge said, revealing that he worked for the Veterans Health Administration for the past year. It also showed hospital brass that they can count on HTM professionals in future emergencies, according to the panelists. 

Getting Resourceful 

Many in the HTM industry also saw the role of traditional technology expand at the start of the pandemic. After all, DeFrancesco said, emergencies can facilitate change. “[COVID-19] was kind of that kick in the backside that we needed as HTM professionals,” she said. “So many changes were made during COVID that biomed had to support.” That includes “the expansion of patient monitoring, the expansion of our oxygen system, the expansion of dialysis and respiratory equipment, tele-ICUs—even just expanded patient support equipment.”

DeFrancesco lauded those in the HTM profession for their creative use of technology. “We also implemented devices in ways that we wouldn’t traditionally use them,” she said, “Whether it’s [creating] extra-long tubing for infusion pumps so that you could [implement social distancing protocols] and have them outside, to even ventilators—having the screen outside the room.”

DeFrancesco said she saw how HTM could make a big difference by simply tweaking medical devices in a U.S. FDA-regulated way. “Not against their FDA approval, of course, but make them more useable in a human factor way in their environment,” she said during the panel. 

Wright echoed that sentiment. “We have adapted—within regulation—equipment that’s existing, as well as trying to use our own inventories, our own knowledge, and our own facilities to help reallocate some of those devices,” she said.

HTM professionals admit they had to walk a tightrope at times when it came to implementing different measures due to constrained budgets. Even so, Wright said, “I think we were a key player in helping to realign the facilities with the key needs.”

COVID-19 Changes Here to Stay?

The pandemic’s impact has spurred several practices HTM professionals say could become permanent fixtures for facilities in the future. For one, DeFrancesco said, it’s increased the use of telehealth—“whether that’s a telehealth endpoint or video conferencing via an app.” She said that she envisions patients who were reluctant to adopt telehealth to now utilize it. 

Infection control protocols have also evolved. When COVID-19 burst onto the scene, good hygiene practice and PPE use became a constant battle cry heard across the medical world. The panelists don’t see that changing. DeFranceso admits that there were times departments were not “the most hygienic,” especially when it came to knowing when or if equipment had been sanitized. She said even the personal hygiene of handwashing was not necessarily a given.

“We haven’t always thought of HTM in that cycle of infectious disease,” said DeFrancesco of life before COVID-19. “I think [good hygiene practice] is definitely here to stay, and that’s a great thing.” 

Those on the panel said higher levels of screenings will also likely become mainstays. “There wasn’t necessarily screening in place prior [to COVID-19],” Wright said, noting an attitude, particularly with visitors, along the lines of “‘It’s not really your business. What do you care if I had a cough two days ago?’” 

Meanwhile, social distancing guidelines have made it difficult for people to attend in-person events. So the panelists predict virtual conferencing will become the norm. “I definitely see overall in HTM that there will be a higher level of overall acceptance for virtual,” Wright said. “I think there is just going to be a lingering fear for a long time of everyone in HTM and healthcare of large gatherings.”

People—including HTM professionals—may still be reluctant to attend in-person events, but they’re more likely than ever to utilize advanced technologies, according to DeFrancesco. “Even with training of new biomeds and new biomed techs, we see the use of VR(virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality,” she said.

She also predicts that video teleconferencing will change the “whole education paradigm.” During the panel, DeFrancesco said she envisions HTM professionals attending MRI school while sitting at their healthcare facility using VR and AR. The shift in thinking, she said, will change the dynamic “not only for our patients but also in the way we triage and train our HTM professionals.”

Assessing the Long-Term Toll of COVID-19

While the panelists reiterated their hope to never live through another pandemic, they pointed to one upside: COVID-19 revealed areas that needed to be addressed, including emergency management preparedness and better-equipped staff.

“I think we’re going to see an increased need for a more diverse skillset of HTM professionals,” DeFrancesco said. “For better or worse, during COVID, hospitals really needed an HTM department. I think some HTM departments really rose to that occasion and maybe others that were, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know if I was ready to be on that big stage. My COO was calling or my VP of operations was calling me, and we need to go fortify some of these skills.’”

Wright said the pandemic also exposed the need for additional HTM professionals. “We’ve also seen the need to increase our skills with our existing technicians to spread across our knowledge and to really utilize the people that we have,” she added.

For DeFrancesco, she senses a shift in how HTM departments will operate in the future. “I think moving forward, we are going to be a bit more flexible,” she said, adding that flexibility will apply not only to new HTM professionals but also to [embracing new] technology partners, such as computerized maintenance management systems vendors. “There is definitely going to be a big shift,” she said.

One aspect panelists hope it will shift is the number of new biomeds joining the field. Unfortunately, Wright said, the increased demand on the industry during the height of the pandemic did not coincide with the amount of people entering it. “It’s been a struggle to keep up,” she said, “and I think as far as COVID is concerned, it has really brought that even more to the forefront,” Wright said. “I think that will just really help us as far as seeing where our needs are. It’s put a spotlight on some areas that we might not have been ready for.”

The pandemic has been overwhelmingly negative, for sure, Wright added, but it has tested—and stretched—HTM professionals—and they have grown tremendously in the process. And that, the panelists agree, is something to applaud.

Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].