The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just change how we work; it changed how we want to work. Like countless other industries, healthcare responded to pandemic-prompted trends by turning their short-term adaptations into long-term strategies. In the short span of a year, telehealth has become a primary mode of delivering care, increasing patients’ access to specialized medicine, reducing hospitalizations, and improving health outcomes.

But the benefits telehealth offers aren’t limited to patients. Integrating remote-care policies can also help providers lower their costs, expand their workforce, and even cultivate happier employees. Doctors, their staff, and healthcare organizations at large can benefit from the operational flexibility digital care tools provide. 

“Healthcare is always slow to adopt and utilize technology compared to other industries, whether financial or retail,” Chris Harper, vice president of IT at University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, told Becker’s Hospital Review. “I feel like this pandemic really gave healthcare organizations the opportunity to kind of up their game when it comes to remote work and telehealth. It’s been a hard pandemic for everyone, but IT and the tech we have in place has really been showcased in this time of need.”

Of course, COVID-19 increased that impact. Providers were compelled to respond in the short term by closing offices, treating fewer patients, and performing fewer procedures during the pandemic’s initial days. But during that crunch, many healthcare organizations also saw an opportunity to change how they staff and support their workforce by offering more remote opportunities to their employees.

In Kansas City, for example, the confluence of COVID-19 and telehealth has already led to significant operational changes. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, the remote workforce at the University of Kansas Hospital went from 300 people working remotely before COVID-19 to more than 2,300 during the pandemic.

The potential operational perks of such a shift cannot be understated. In a paper for its Insights Series, Siemens Healthineers concluded that remote work delivers three primary benefits for providers: safer workplaces, reduced strain on an overextended workforce, and increased efficiency and productivity. The report further found that virtual work allowed healthcare workers to contribute their expertise remotely and flexibly fill shortages in other departments. Telehealth opportunities also helped lower facility costs and increased the output and quality of their employees’ work. 

The prospective financial returns are significant as well. According to Chiron Health, video appointments have lower cancellation rates because patients conduct them remotely. Moreover, because telehealth appointments are more efficient in scheduling, they can help produce higher revenues. One 2017 Nemours Children’s Health System study found that virtual sports medicine appointments patients saved the group $24 per patient.

The benefits of remote work extend to employees as well, which in turn benefits providers. According to Owl Labs’ 2020 State of Remote Work survey, 77 percent of those who responded said they prefer working from home. Further, half of those surveyed said they won’t return to jobs that don’t offer some work-from-home component.

For healthcare workers, who already perform in high-pressure environments, the option to work remotely can hold great appeal. It can help reduce stress and create a better work-life balance. Providers, in turn, can benefit because remote work greatly expands their access to talented healthcare workers.

Telehealth still faces some regulatory uncertainty and the need for further clarity regarding insurance guidelines. But providers have proven over the past year that they can meet those challenges. As the Siemens paper said, healthcare organizations should make remote work part of their strategic plan for the future.

“Healthcare providers should give priority to remote work solutions in their strategic planning,” the Siemens paper concluded. “Strategic investments will pay off in future. Remote work must be understood as a comprehensive and enduring part of the transformation of healthcare, not simply a short-term response to COVID-19.”