The COVID-19 pandemic blindsided the skilled nursing sector when it hit in late winter and early spring this year, but the field has to be willing to acknowledge pre-existing problems with infection control and make changes accordingly.
That’s according to Mark Parkinson, the leader of the nursing home trade group the American Health Care Association (AHCA), who spoke for an opening address for the 2020 Collaborative Care HIT Summit on Tuesday.
The conference was hosted by LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST); LeadingAge is the trade association that represents for non-profit senior housing and care providers.
“You are the folks that should be coming to the thought leaders in the sector and in your organizations and saying: Look, we had a problem with infection control even before COVID. COVID wasn’t our fault, but it is a time for us to get better. And these are the specific IT solutions and IT policies that we need,” Parkinson told the audience on Tuesday.
During his opening address, he emphasized the need for collaboration as a means of preventing future disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken a significant toll on skilled nursing facilities across the U.S.; more than 48,000 deaths have taken place in SNFs alone, with more than 750 deaths among staff, Parkinson noted.
Several studies have found that a nursing home’s location plays a significant role in COVID-19 infections in-house, a point Parkinson emphasized during his presentation. But in addition, the old infection control procedures were inadequate, he noted.
“Perfect infection control didn’t require CNAs [certified nursing assistants] to wear masks every time that they’re dressing a resident or feeding a resident or transferring a resident,” he said.
But now that SNFs and other long-term care operators are aware of how COVID-19 spreads, the infection control procedures have to change, Parkinson added. Masks are required for every interaction, whether with a resident or another staff member — and this is where collaboration and IT play a critical role, he said.
“In order for us to most effectively take care of the folks in our building, and most effectively collaborate with the rest of the health care system, we’ve got to continue and accelerate our investments in IT as we recover from COVID,” Parkinson argued.
In the pandemic’s early days, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released a slew of waivers designed to facilitate the provision of telehealth services, and for SNFs, the impact has been significant.
Telehealth providers reported jumps in the SNFs making use of their services, while one psychology practice catering to SNFs had to pivot in a matter of weeks to a telehealth model — and is now charting its future growth around such a system. Video visitation, though no substitute for in-person interactions, has emerged as a lifeline for keeping SNF residents connected to their families and loved ones when distanced visits aren’t an option.
For Parkinson, this shifting ground means that IT leaders have to tell operators what their technology needs are, even on top of helping operators implement strong technology systems.
“We need you to lead the way on collaboration, so that finally post-acute care and long-term care can really join the 21st century,” Parkinson said.