As we approach the end of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s obvious the experience has been hard on everyone—but few more so than frontline healthcare providers. Burnout among clinicians has always been a perennial concern, but industry surveys have shown workforce shortages reaching new levels this year.
In fact, the burnout rate is projected to keep rising into the future. A poll from McKinsey & Company reported about 30% of nurses saying they’re considering leaving direct patient care entirely. Just this month, the American Hospital Association linked staffing shortages to delays in patient discharges. And the strain seen in the in-patient setting is compounding the problem.
“We're anticipating, by the end of this decade, to be somewhere in the range of a 15 million clinician shortage in the acute care space,” Shiv Gopalkrishnan, senior vice president for health informatics at Philips, said in an interview.
In recent years, many artificial intelligence developers have promised to help health systems become more efficient. And in many cases, they have already delivered, such as by processing complex body scans or providing a second eye on the patient's vital signs. But healthcare systems may have to lean harder on AI and virtual care going forward as many clinicians consider changing their careers.
Constant digital transformation
There have been plenty of advancements in the field of digital and virtual care, but improvements in areas like patient evaluations and diagnostic techniques have also flooded clinicians’ workloads with new types of data and in much greater amounts. “From an imaging perspective, what we see is that, with current technologies and computing power, there are way more images available after a patient procedure than there has ever been before,” Catherine Estrampes, GE Healthcare’s president and CEO of U.S. and Canada, told Fierce Medtech.
And with more providers making the jump to digital systems, helping hospitals and health systems manage the surge of information is a challenge even when they're fully staffed. “So when we think about digital transformation, the overarching focus is how do we help our customers connect that huge amount of data to insights.”
“I think for the first time in the past 15 or 20 years, our customers are facing labor shortages, very high attrition, and, in a way, higher costs of labor—and that is preoccupation number one for our customers,” Estrampes said. “As a result, they are really looking for ways to decrease their burdens—and the burnout—of their nurses, technicians and MDs.”
“It all came to a head with the onset of the pandemic, where we saw telehealth really come into play with home visits being done remotely,” Gopalkrishnan noted. But at the same time, ICUs became overwhelmed with COVID patients—providing an opportunity to employ telemedicine technologies inside the wards, same as outside. “We really need to rethink what remote patient monitoring can mean in the hospital and what virtual care means in the hospital—that's a big area of focus for us,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, both GE Healthcare and Philips were exploring and establishing healthcare “command centers,” where a limited number of technicians could help keep watch over dozens of beds spanning multiple hospitals, all from a central facility.
With a connected “eICU” system, remote workers would have access to the same data as a nurse on an intensive care floor and could act as the first level of triage when it comes to readying patients for transfer out of the ICU or seeing if they need extra attention, said Gopalkrishnan.
COVID-19 brought a surge in demand for these networks, he said, because not only can they help health systems potentially scale up their operations but they also keep trained medical staff nearby. “The metric that we're going to measure ourselves on is the patient-to-clinician ratio,” Gopalkrishnan said.
And the hospital of the future, he predicts, will employ AI programs, wireless monitors, computer vision and cameras to monitor vital signs and automatically alert clinicians of a patient in distress—like an automated upgrade over the ubiquitous nurses’ call button.
But if it sounds like AI will one day make providers’ jobs obsolete, Gopalkrishnan said healthcare is a unique field. The public’s demands for medical services will continue to outpace the number of jobs that are available.
“So how do we deliver access and affordability to patients? It has to be through leveraging technology, and I think the healthcare industry, nurses and clinicians are embracing this more openly right now,” he said. “Because they don't see this as a path for jobs elimination, they see this as a path for them to stay relevant and able to care for more patients. Because there is a demand that they are not able to satisfy right now.”
And in radiology and digital imaging, AI programs have helped improve departments’ workflows—such as the deep-learning software GE Healthcare received an FDA clearance for earlier this fall, as well as programs that highlight severe, time-sensitive findings and triage them to the top of the pile for clinician review.
These types of technologies have led to 35% more exams being completed per week with the same number of staff, while also reducing weeks-long wait times for undergoing MRI scans, Estrampes said—critical measures if a hospital is short on personnel.
“On one hand, image quality is our top priority, obviously,” she said. “But at the same time and in parallel, one of the applications that AI and machine learning technologies can focus on is the productivity of our clients, because efficiency is at the top of their list.”
Meanwhile, in ultrasound—a field dependent on the personal touch of a clinician manipulating a handheld probe—GE Healthcare has been exploring the use of telehealth within a hospital system to allow staff with more experience to virtually guide newer technicians step-by-step through a sonogram without having to be in the same room.
As Estrampes said, it’s part of a “doubling down,” on new technologies in diagnostics, targeted therapies and patient monitoring that GE Healthcare has planned. It is of particular focus as the company aims to strike out on its own, spinning out from its parent conglomerate on January 4, 2023, with the goal of making imaging the cornerstone of advanced patient care.
“I believe that the radiologist of the future will become the chief diagnostician, if you like, or the chief of integrated medicine,” Estrampes said. “Why do I say that? Because imaging is going to be at the center of precision medicine.”
Precision care begins with the early interception of disease, such as with cancer screenings. With images in hand, clinicians can—and already do, in some cases—add on lab results, genomic profiles and pathology findings, she said. “The radiologist will be the starting point of the aggregation of all that data.”
“When you do that, you will have a 360-degree view of the patient. And that will inform more precise therapies in the future and that will help with more precise patient monitoring. And AI is going to be at the center of each of those.”