If you’ve caught yourself watching one too many E.R. episodes, then this one’s for you. MercyOne – Iowa’s answer to Country General – is a relatively new health care system, founded in 1998 and currently operates out of 420 care locations across the state of Iowa and neighbouring communities. Mathew Dietz, MercyOne’s Division Director, Digital and Virtual Strategy, and MercyOne’s CMIO Dr. Joel Ward discuss everything from COVID-19 to provider burnouts, and more.
Dr. Ward has been with MercyOne for a little over six years serving as the Chief Medical Informatics Officer for the health system’s Central Iowa region, along with Dietz who joined about a year ago, as the driver for all digital health strategic and regulatory implementations across MercyOne's seven centres.
Currently, the centres have been busy with vaccine implementation, and digital transformation is no longer on the back-burner. The executives talk about how COVID-19 created an urgency for telehealth and the birth of innovation in the light of adversity.
The longstanding need for transformation
With more than 20,000 colleagues under its wing, MercyOne is no small organization. To be a healthcare provider in a time when all eyes are on you is a lot of pressure, even for the most seasoned players. So what do you do when you’re thrown into the deep end of a global pandemic, at a time when people are looking for risk-free, affordable ways to get the best possible care they deserve? You improvise.
Dr. Ward and Matt Dietz share a camaraderie that is evident not just through the interview but also in the way tasks are managed at the health system. While Dr. Ward oversees the provider and operational tasks in-house, Dietz spearheads the virtual care strategy at MercyOne. Together, they’re making sure the health system is at the helm of digital transformation.
“Healthcare as an industry is usually two to three generations behind technology compared to other industries. The concept of cloud-based storage is something that still requires a large change management process.” says Matt Dietz, setting the premise for why a digital transformation was challenging but very much required.
However, the need for a shift to digital didn’t arise solely from the lack of better infrastructure. Patients today want to be in control, whether it’s choosing a healthcare provider or physically commuting to a care centre of their choosing. Keeping this in mind, it was important for MercyOne to adopt newer ways of reaching their primary consumer – the patient. As Dr. Ward points out, “As providers, we've pretty much dedicated ourselves to taking care of our patients. And when our patients tell us that what they needed at the time was a digital transformation, it was pretty obvious to us because due to COVID-19 regulations we had to pause non-essential in-person care and our patient volumes cut down drastically, and some people were just afraid to come in because of the risks. But we didn't really have to look at just the COVID-19 pandemic to realize there was a need for transformation, but it’s what the patients really wanted.”
COVID-19 has also pushed the healthcare industry into developing virtual systems of care faster than ever, as a direct consequence of restricted movement, compromised immunity and legislation.
Strategic partnerships that fuel efficiency
At a time when hospitals are treating more patients than ever, it has become increasingly imminent that remote monitoring is the way forward. Speaking of steps taken by MercyOne to make this as seamless as possible, the subject of strategic partnerships cannot be ignored.
Dr. Ward and Dietz mention two such partnerships that have helped the health system meet patient expectations as well as increase their provider output. “Phreesia is one of our most dynamic partners in creating the digital front door of our clinics.” They have helped develop a patient intake platform that saved MercyOne the pain of manually onboarding details of every patient, and prevented patients from endless paperwork. The health system did see a surge in in-patient numbers, but this has been managed effectively and in record time due to this alliance.
Another noteworthy mention is Health Recovery Solutions, MercyOne’s remote monitoring partner for the Des Moines market. A historic partner of MercyOne, Health Recovery Solutions is making home health possible for over 1,600 patients just within Des Moines, allowing the care centre to make more informed empirical and algorithmic decisions without the patient leaving their home. This is a giant leap in the area of remote care, allowing patients to enjoy a quality of care that was previously unseen, from the comfort of their homes and equipped with the best technology.
Extending nursing careers through a virtually integrated care program
Speaking of virtual care, Dr. Ward has also spearheaded the introduction of virtual nurses as an extension of the care provided at MercyOne. This provides two noticeable benefits – round the clock patient care and reduced nurse burnouts. Unfortunately, due to pandemic-related restrictions, healthcare providers are overworked and unable to provide round the clock care. This, along with the need to put on a full PPE suit each time can extremely limit a nurse's movement and output. Similarly, visitors are finding it harder to arrange social visits amidst the lockdown and restrictions. What the virtual nurse does is that with a simple click, provides both the physician and their families with a full update on the patient's health. This, in turn, reduces the hours that nurses need to put in on the floor and gives them the chance to mentor new resources from the tele command centre, so hospitals didn't lose that deep well of knowledge. Eventually, the support that the virtual nurse provides is unmatchable, and in the words of Dr. Ward, "We're really able to wrap the patient with all manners of care from practically every service line, and it's been something that's been relatively new to the tele-health industry because really it comes down to supporting the patient for the other 23 hours and 45 minutes that the doctor isn't in the room".
A fearless approach to change
With all eyes on healthcare, it is no surprise that institutions across the world are rapidly evolving. Matt Dietz shares some insight for peers taking on a rightful step towards digital transformation. "There is no such thing as failure. Digital transformation is still new, and we try things out because we want to improve our current experiences. And if something doesn't work as we originally hypothesized it doesn't mean it's a failure, it means that we're learning, it gives us an opportunity to improve upon something and that's what excites us the most about digital transformation. It gives us not a reckless mindset, but it allows us to be fearless sometimes – to try things that we never thought we could before."