Many Australians are breathing a sigh of relief that the national impact of COVID-19 is subsiding. While we have seen the strains on health services in other countries, including in Europe and the United States, our health services have coped well.
But Australian health services would be wise to avoid complacency. COVID-19 will remain a major health threat across the world until a treatment and/or a vaccine is developed. This means COVID-19 will likely be with us for at least another 12 months.
Nonetheless, as case counts fall in most parts of Australia health services must now consider how they make up the ground that was lost due to COVID-19 and return to normal operations while staying ready to manage any future outbreaks. There are also valuable opportunities to embed new and better ways of working.
As health services leaders feel their way through this process, it is important to think and act strategically rather than on impulse. To do that, we have identified four strategic activities that will serve you well for the year ahead: scenario planning, review of finances, assessing sustainability and identifying lessons.
With uncertainty about how COVID-19 may evolve, health services need to be flexible in their approach to managing the pandemic. To enable this flexibility, it is useful to map out possible scenarios for COVID-19 over the next year.
There are four phases that health services may progress through:
Movement through the phases may not be linear, and services may skip phases or regress, but this provides a useful framework for understanding where an organisation is at.
Nous Group has identified scenarios that describe the circumstances at a national level. These can be adapted to look at the impacts on individual health services as they experience the four phases. Service-level impacts include staffing and bed capacity requirements, the effects on different elements of the service, the ability to conduct business as usual and opportunity for recovery, each assessed as low, moderate or high.
The benefit of scenarios is not that they offer an exact template for what may occur, but that they help organisations to structure their planning.
COVID-19 has brought financial and operational challenges for health services. However, it has also created unique opportunities for hospitals to tap into the data generated during the slowdown to examine their existing processes and cost structures.
As governments required health services to defer elective surgeries, appointments and procedures to create capacity to manage COVID-19, many activities were scaled back or paused. This left many wards, operating theatres and staff underutilised and general hospital activity at levels not seen for many years. Despite this, health services had to maintain operations and cover fixed costs.
These circumstances create an opportunity for hospitals to collate real-time operational data on what happens when hospital activity changes significantly.
Reduced activity datasets span all hospital operations, for example:
Each can then be matched with financial data to understand:
Better understanding the link between hospital activity on one hand and costs and revenue on the other presents significant opportunities for health services to increase sustainability.
As well as reducing immediate negative financial impacts, this understanding enables hospitals to identify how they can enhance their operational efficiency and financial sustainability as activities are restored to pre-COVID-19 levels.
COVID-19 allows hospitals to review their operations and finances to ensure they are optimised for sustainability.
There are three focus areas when reviewing a hospital’s sustainability. Within each focus area, Nous Group has identified several opportunities and anticipated benefits for the health service. In brief:
Achieving sustainability requires asking the right questions and gathering the right data to answer those questions. Datasets should cover the period before and during COVID-19 so hospitals can compare changes in activity and costs and quantify these changes in dollar terms.
It is important to reflect on changes that have taken place during COVID-19 and identify what should be maintained in future.
In our experience is it valuable to dive deep into, say, four specialties in a hospital to really get under the skin of the operational changes during COVID-19 in order to learn what needs to be sustained. Earlier this year we helped a leading children’s hospital see what lessons it could learn from changes to its virtual care service, with encouraging results, including identifying up to 25 per cent of outpatient consultations that could be conducted virtually.
In another recent project, Nous Group examined opportunities in one state to identify what hospitals could learn from COVID-19. To do this we drew on some of the tools we have just discussed to better understand the impact of COVID-19 and how it could inform future activities.
Among the insights this work generated were four lessons for hospitals and health services:
The experience for other states and health systems is likely to be similar.
With government and household budgets tightened, hospitals and health services will need to find ways to drive every dollar further over at least the next year. A strategic approach to capturing the lessons from COVID-19 will be a vital step.
Get in touch to discuss how Nous Group has support your hospital or health service tap into the opportunities emerging from COVID-19.
Connect with Ian Thompson on LinkedIn.
Published on 24 June 2020.