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COVID-19 has put every healthcare system in the world to the test. Rising daily cases increased hospitalizations, exhausted supplies, and caused extreme fatigue and burnout among health workers. Even the first-world countries, with their efficient and sophisticated systems, felt pressured by this pandemic and experienced staggering challenges.

What’s more, the challenges weren’t just about the people’s and the workers’ health. The healthcare industry also had to buckle up against cyberattack, especially after the WannaCry cyberattack in the NHS. This ransomware locked down all the files in the computers it has affected, and the hackers demanded a $300 ransom for each file in exchange for releasing it.

But on a positive note, the cyberattacks in the past gave the healthcare industry time to anticipate and prepare for them. Hospitals started to reinforce their data security and used AI to protect their electronic health records (EHR) to the maximum level.

Still, the pandemic didn’t make it any easier for hospitals. Below are the top challenges the healthcare industry have gone through and may continue to do so until the virus is eradicated:

Rising Hospitalizations and Increasing Demand for Care

As of the first two weeks of November 2020, over 1.75 million people across the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19. On November 22, the number of new cases surged across almost every state every day. While testing capacity increased, the rate of positive results also blew up. As such, hospitalizations have risen, indicating that the virus was becoming more prevalent.

COVID-19 patients used 10% of all hospital beds in 33 states as of November 22. Meanwhile, they occupied 20% of all adult intensive care units (ICU) in 34 states. In addition, many of the locations with the highest hospitalizations were rural, where resources to support patients could be fewer compared to metropolitan hospitals. North Dakota, for example, only has 11 ICU beds per 100,000 population, significantly lower than the country’s average, which is 27 ICU beds per 100,000 population. As a result, North Dakota was forced to make their asymptomatic staff continue working in COVID-19 units to prevent staff shortage.

New Hospital Pressures (Capacity, Supplies, Workforce)

Many hospitals postponed elective care to make room for COVID-19 patients. Arizona, for example, freed up 40% of their non-COVID-19 inpatient volumes from July 13 to 16 using such an approach. Despite this, however, recent reports suggested that acuity of care has improved and that care that was once considered elective may now be urgent. Furthermore, some patients may have chosen to forego their treatments for life-threatening diseases. In the first 10 weeks of the pandemic, there had been a 23% decline in heart attacks and a 20% decline in strokes.

With regard to supplies, masks, testing, and PPE became the most in-demand, needless to say. Even schools, businesses, and public spaces demanded them too. But the FDA identified a shortage in 20 critical supplies, including N95 respirators, ventilators, and testing supplies. Moreover, the pressure on the global supply chain could raise costs and continue supply shortages.

The workforce suffered great risks and impacts as well. Healthcare workers faced higher risks of acquiring COVID-19 than workers in other industries. They’ve also taken longer working hours, resulting in fatigue and psychological stress. As such, many healthcare workers became unavailable for work because of exposures and infections. This may continue to occur as cases keep rising. And if extreme stress doesn’t stop plaguing healthcare workers, many may retire early and cause a shortage in the workforce.

The Role of Technology in Mitigating the Challenges

Many COVID-19 patients also have underlying health conditions, such as obesity, cancer, or chronic illnesses. But through AI, hospitals can match disparate health records with optimal precision. As a result, healthcare data scientists can further understand the complications that may occur in a COVID-19 patient. While physicians already understand that specific conditions raise a patients’ risk for severe illness, AI-powered analyses have given them an expanded list of conditions that can increase risks. With more data, healthcare providers can better prevent a patient from getting worse.

Some hospitals have also started incorporating natural language processing (NLP) in their systems. NLP is based on AI and machine learning, and it translates free text language into a standardized and structured set of medical terms that a computer can understand.

NLP can extract data from health records, and flag important issues that will allow healthcare providers to deliver better care and avoid delayed diagnosis and treatment.

And of course, the healthcare system has also increased its efforts in cybersecurity. The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency have released risk insights for COVID-19 and begun tracking cyber alerts directly related to the pandemic.

Now that a vaccine is available, the healthcare industry is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we shouldn’t let our guards down yet; until hospitalizations drop and healthcare workers rest and recover, we must keep following health protocols.

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