Earlier this month, the United States surpassed the record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, which had been set a year ago in January 2021 — before vaccines were widely available to the public — a sign that the Omicron variant is continuing to ravage the healthcare system.
The highly contagious variant, while seemingly less severe according to WHO, is nevertheless not to be considered “mild” and is still causing hospitalizations and deaths. Couple high numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations with a severe shortage of hospital workers and stretched resources and we have a situation that feels very much like the spring of 2020.
What is post-COVID syndrome?
For many people, COVID-19 acts as an acute case where symptoms fade and eventually disappear after a few weeks. But as hospitals and health systems struggle through this latest COVID wave, another concern is weighing heavily on patients and staff alike and creating a subset of problems for an already strapped healthcare system.
Post-COVID syndrome, also referred to as long COVID, long-haul COVID, post-acute COVID-19, or chronic COVID, is yet another challenge for many patients and healthcare workers as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year. People who have been diagnosed with post-COVID syndrome are commonly called long haulers.
Symptoms vary widely and include physical issues from chronic fatigue, breathing issues, muscle weakness, lingering chest pain, and heart palpitations, as well as mental health issues such as confusion, inability to focus and think clearly, often known as brain fog. These conditions often make it challenging for a person to care for themselves or others.
Additionally, there have been ongoing reports of loss of senses such as taste and smell for prolonged periods, which have led to eating disorders such as anorexia and malnutrition. The emotional toll post-COVID syndrome takes on the individual is also concerning. Survivors report increased anxiety and depression.
Caring for those with post-COVID syndrome
Post-COVID syndrome affects people of all ages. While it is not yet fully understood why some individuals experience COVID-19 differently than others — for example even those with mild cases may report symptoms of post-COVID syndrome months after “recovering” — it has become clear that post-COVID syndrome is a public health issue and will continue to exist for years to come.
Treatment for these individuals is recommended as soon as possible and requires an interdisciplinary team of experts. This team may include experts from both the public and private sector. For example, individuals attending college or school-age children may require additional support from counselors, disability assessments, or help defining new strategies for learning based on new cognitive impairments.
Many hospital systems are creating programs to better recognize and support these individuals. Programs include team members from primary care, pulmonary medicine, cardiology, infectious disease, nephrology, psychiatry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, radiology, neuropsychiatry, behavioral health, social work, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language therapy, and more.
Using digital technology to help patients and caregivers
In an already strained healthcare system, digital tools can help support patients and caregivers with the treatment of post-COVID syndrome. Digital health tools like GetWell Loop can keep caregivers connected and patients informed while delivering educational and interactive exercises to reinforce therapeutic coping strategies, triage and track symptoms over time to help us better understand how the condition is impacting the individual, and prioritize in-person treatment effectively.
GetWell Loop is a digital health companion to augment in person care. The program is flexible and can be embedded in the workflow of post-COVID syndrome navigators to help them manage complexities in care, administer PROMS and self-guided assessments, and identify patients who may require additional support. Patients complete weekly self assessments and participate in interactive training modules.
Content consists of social, emotional, physical, and mental health assessments and self-reported observations. Based on reported findings, program coordinators can identify patients requiring additional services and work to keep them within the network, thus improving timely coordination of care and open communication between team members. Asynchronous communication through the patient’s preferred method of communication (for example, text or email) keeps individuals closely connected to program coordinators and specialists. The ability of GetWell Loop to disseminate information to people when they most needed it was recognized last year as part of a KLAS report on vendor response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Digital technology served as early tools to address COVID-19
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations found the availability of digital tools helped them address the first waves of COVID-19 and ensure all patients were able to receive the needed care.
Recognizing that Black and African-American patients were being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, LifeBridge Health, in the Baltimore, Md., region, leveraged GetWell Loop to deliver resources that would inform and engage people while taking health equity concerns into consideration. This allowed the health system to remotely monitor and manage their patients with COVID-19 symptoms at scale. The result? In total, 79% of patients avoided office visits or phone calls; 83% of patients indicated satisfaction with the tool; and LifeBridge showed that engagement with the tool was 15% higher for Black of African-American patients.
Similarly, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, M Health Fairview leveraged GetWell Loop. Not only did the tool help patients across the system, deployment of GetWell Loop helped increase equity for local communities of color. The result? From 4,000 patients enrolled, 10,770 checked in through GetWell Loop; only 13 of those patients were admitted to the hospital, and the hospital saw 95% patient utilization, with 91% satisfaction with the tool.
Another five-hospital system in the midwest used GetWell Loop to communicate with and monitor more than 37,000 patients outside the traditional hospital care setting. A group of nurses managing COVID-19 testing and results for the health system leveraged GetWell Loop COVID-19 care plans to track the health of patients quarantined or self isolating at home. Hospital staff fielded more than 14,000 comments, questions, and alerts through the tool. The result? Patients who used GetWell Loop were 30% less likely to be admitted to the hospital and reported a 90% satisfaction rate.
The bottom line
Digital tools have proven effective throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with many hospitals and health systems using digital technology to communicate with and monitor patients while ensuring patients avoid unnecessary trips to the hospital.
As the healthcare industry and public health initiatives shift focus to include post-COVID syndrome and the symptoms of those people managing the longer-term effects of COVID-19, digital technology can again enable hospitals and health systems to effectively treat their patients, as well as ensure the health and safety of their staff.