Pandemic Pressures Could Increase Provider Digital Divide

Lately, I’ve begun to see a lot of discussion about ways in which adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic might have an upside. If nothing else, providers have been reminded just how agile they can be if the circumstances demand, some pundits have suggested.

I have no doubt that for some providers, the changes pushed through by the pandemic are having a positive effect. Sometimes, when a system breaks down, the process of mending it can lead to outcomes that might not have been achieved any other way.

It’s hardly surprising that it took a crisis to move HIT strategies forward at such a dramatic pace. After all, few organizations will voluntarily make major changes to how they do things in one swell foop. Not only are such changes costly and exhausting, they’re pretty risky too.

Still, if these health IT leaders are lucky (and smart, and well-organized) many will indeed end up turning pandemic lemons into lemonade. In fact, when they snap back into place they may end up in better shape then they were before.

On the other hand, there’s little doubt that pandemic pressures will also bring health systems and clinics new trouble. In some of these cases – particularly a patched and creaky infrastructure put together rapidly as COVID-19 caseloads exploded – the harm this creates may well linger long beyond the current crisis.

As with their peers, COVID-19 care will expose fundamental weaknesses in their HIT infrastructure that could probably stand to be addressed. However, if they were already struggling to make their HIT infrastructure work, the pandemic could have ugly consequences.

Specifically, providers whose networks are built around creaky, inadequately patched and maintained infrastructure may be in trouble. If they need to do a forklift upgrade to replace legacy systems buckling under increased demands, things could get even uglier.

Even worse, health systems and clinics which started out with modest IT security resources might find that they’re even more behind. A recent study found that 73% of health system, hospital and physician organizations aren’t prepared to protect themselves, with 1,500 healthcare providers vulnerable to data breaches of 500 or more records.

Of course, the truth is that organizations with deep pockets will always be more likely to make it through crises like the COVID-19. There’s a lot to be said for having a financial cushion and a nicely configured, top of the line infrastructure in place when storms hit.

In this particular crisis, however, smaller, weaker or less sophisticated healthcare providers are at a worse disadvantage than usual. We’re looking at a time when the distance between successful and unsuccessful providers is likely to widen, which may have an impact on the care they can deliver.

Let’s hope that when the dust has settled, providers with fewer resources, aging or cobbled together systems and IT staffing levels will still in a position to move forward. Even once the pandemic begins to recede, they’re going to be doing a lot of catching up, and it will be a dangerous time for all concerned.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.