The first global pandemic in more than a century exploded into existence with little warning and more than enough momentum to grind the world to a standstill for two years. Within weeks, borders were closed, flights were canceled, large events disappeared and each and every one of us was thrust into a new reality.
“When the devastating effects of the COVID-19 virus hit health care systems hard in 2020, St. Luke’s was in a unique position,” says Chad Brisendine, chief information officer for St. Luke’s University Health Network. “Having initiated a partnership with Microsoft years before, it was time to really dig into the technology we had at our fingertips, implement the capabilities of Microsoft Teams to their fullest and carry forward perhaps St. Luke’s greatest asset – the ability to innovate.”
Microsoft Teams is a collaboration application built for companies with hybrid work environments in which some employees work from home and others are spread out over sometimes vast geographies. Teams allows people to work together in a shared space to stay informed, organized and connected — all in one place.
Realtime, remote and safe communication is paramount to caring for patients and conducting business, and St. Luke’s partnership with Microsoft began to show its mettle as the benefits for patients and providers alike, under arduous and unusual circumstances, became apparent.
As COVID-19 marched through the Lehigh Valley and across the world, St. Luke’s launched several new and innovative applications with MS Teams, led by representatives from Information Technology (IT), St. Luke’s Physician Group (SLPG) and patient care teams from the Department of Nursing. St. Luke’s was the first health care network in the U.S. to harness the versatility and might of the Microsoft Power platform to track and control PPE use, to conduct virtual doctor visits, to run our emergency command center and to support the ever growing need for fast applications and access to data and information.
“These adaptability and rapid emergency response features make Microsoft Power and Teams an ideal and cost-effective platform,” says Brisendine. “Since we couldn’t have people sitting in a room face-to-face, Microsoft Power allowed us to work and collaborate virtually while we maintained social distancing.”
Perhaps most impressive, more than 1,900 physicians, advanced practitioners, office staff and administrators were trained to conduct virtual visits with patients in just three days, says James Balshi, MD, St. Luke’s former Chief Medical Information Officer, now retired.
Despite some initial hesitancy, says Brisendine, the transition to virtual health care became the foundational norm very quickly. In pre-pandemic years, from July 2018 to March 2020, St. Luke’s delivered approximately 330 virtual health care services per month on average. With the advent of the pandemic, from March 2020 to March 2022, St. Luke’s delivered an average of 21,640 virtual health care services per month, expanding across all settings including inpatient, ambulatory, home health, rehabilitation therapy, nursing home and more.
So impressive and immediate was St. Luke’s embrace of this technology in March of 2020 that the Network was praised as a “Digital First Responder” by Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President on an episode of Talk With Your Doctor. “If there’s a ‘silver lining’ to this pandemic for providers and patients, it’s a more expanded use of Microsoft Teams to improve access to care,” said Dr. Balshi.
The telehealth function of Microsoft Teams also facilitated personal and safe interactions between doctors and patients in the hospital setting using digital tablets. This “virtual rounding” reduced provider and staff exposure to the virus, limited unneeded use of protective personal equipment and allowed family members to ‘visit’ hospitalized loved ones without risking the virus.
“This partnership is unquestionably a win-win for providers and patients alike,” says Brisendine. “Having the capacity to literally meet patients where they are creates the comfort of a home visit without crowded waiting rooms or time lost in a commute. Not to mention the ability to reach patients who have no reliable transportation or mobility issues.”
Another benefit of virtual visits is the involvement of extended family members, even if they live on the other side of the country. This allows them to participate in the decision-making process regarding risks, alternative treatments and progress updates. Bringing family into the discussion gives patients additional support to rely on in challenging times, alleviating some of the stress they are experiencing.
And now, realizing we can never know the future and what it holds, we are doing everything we can to prepare for it. St. Luke’s is recognized as one of the safest hospital networks in the country, and we are taking every measure we can to keep the people of the Greater Lehigh Valley healthy.
“The bottom line,” says Brisendine, “is that we were as prepared as we could be. But we also used the crisis to do what we do best. COVID-19 provided St. Luke’s with an opportunity to innovate, invent and really revolutionize aspects of care. And just because the pandemic has abated for now does not mean we abandon our new tools. The St. Luke’s / Microsoft partnership continues today, as strong as ever. Ingenuity became the word and work of the moment when we were in the thick of it. Ingenuity and innovation have been at the heart of what we do for 150 years. That hasn’t changed. It never will.”