How working onsite during COVID-19 has solidified Northeast Georgia Health’s IT division as part of clinical delivery team

Having completed nearly 100 tech projects since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeast Georgia Health System’s IT team has cemented itself as part of the Gainesville-based organization’s crisis response, according to CIO Chris Paravate.

Mr. Paravate leads a team of 306 IT staff, one-third of which has been working onsite during the pandemic across the health system’s facilities to help deploy new projects and troubleshoot tech issues. When the pandemic hit in March, Mr. Paravate and his team readjusted priorities and doubled down on IT projects that were the most pressing needs for NGHS’ COVID-19 response, including launching telehealth visits, new dashboards and analytics capabilities, setting up mobile units and deploying its EHR to community nonprofit and research facilities.

By having IT staff onsite, the level of in-person engagement has helped carve out the division’s reputation at NGHS as a member of the clinical care team, Mr. Paravate told Becker’s Hospital Review. As one of four facilities in Georgia to receive a state-provided mobile medical unit, NGHS’ IT team worked onsite to equip the 28-bed unit, which is made of shipping containers, with the necessary medical and tech equipment such as its EHR system.

“Our medical staff see IT as part of their care delivery team, and that’s because we’re there,” Mr. Paravate said. “When we stood up our mobile medical unit, we were [onsite] shadowing and making sure everything worked. Not because we were asked to, but because we knew that that’s what was needed.”  

From the mobile medical unit deployment to standing up its telehealth platform across the health system in a matter of nine days, having team members on the ground alongside physicians, nurses and other clinicians has helped shift the entire organization’s perception of IT from being the division of NGHS that provides technologies to being a part of clinical care delivery, according to Mr. Paravate.

“While some organizations have chosen to move people to work remotely, and I think that’s really critically important, there’s members of my IT team that are working in our hospitals side by side with our clinical partners throughout the pandemic and putting themselves at the same level of risk as our clinicians,” he said. “IT is seen as the team that will be there, and we want to be part of the team.”

Having IT staff on the ground at NGHS has helped the health system stay on top of its virtual health strategy, allowing employees to ensure equipment works and devices for virtual visits are in the right place at the right time. These employees also assist with application delivery, from system enhancements to analytics initiatives such as tracking COVID-19 patients and hospital resources. The team also led NGHS’ partnership with local free clinic Good News Clinics and Epic to provide an integrated EHR system that supports the nonprofit’s COVID-19 response. Prior to integrating with NGHS’ EHR, a process that took only 30 days, GNC was still using paper and fax machines to document patient care and send health records to other providers.

“Although COVID-19 has really weathered our medical delivery team, it has so strengthened the trust and the partnership with IT in such a meaningful and deep way that only occurs as you’ve lived through a crisis together,” Mr. Paravate said.

Along with his IT team members, Mr. Paravate is at work onsite every day, spending time rounding in the hospitals and attending clinical huddles to help properly tailor NGHS’ tech response.

Because COVID-19 has highlighted the importance to apply technologies in new ways, some things that were nice to have before – such as virtual care delivery and centralized acute care command centers – have now become essential, Mr. Paravate said. For example, NGHS deployed more than 400 iPads and tablets to facilitate virtual conferences with families, both for coordinating care activities and also using them to make sure patients can visit with their family members. This opportunity brings emotional support to the bedside, despite in-person visiting restrictions enacted due to the spread of the virus.

“That’s just one of many technologies that maybe were more ancillary to the work that we do in healthcare that are now a critical part of the way that we provide care,” he said. “And not just medical but emotional care; it’s respecting life’s most sacred moments.”

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