IT Forefront

Covid-19: A proving ground for technology

by Andrew Rebhan

What a time to be a technology innovator and early adopter.

Along the same line, what a time to be a technology skeptic.

The COVID-19 outbreak brought the global economy to a sudden halt, but the health care industry has been pushed to the forefront of combatting the pandemic. Given the risks of infection, and the unprecedented steps global governments have taken to introduce measures of social distancing, our industry has started to lean on technology more than ever before. IT leaders across the globe are staying vigilant to ensure core clinical, administrative, and communication systems are operational, setting up means to support remote work and patient screening, and partnering with cloud and telecommunications vendors to safeguard reliable connectivity and data exchange.

But those are just some IT fundamentals. Given all of the hype surrounding digital health and other emerging technologies in the past decade, will those health care providers who were early movers see a payoff?

In a word, yes. It is these digital health systems that will have an edge as they take full advantage of digital technologies and IT-related capabilities to rethink clinical and business processes, open up multiple access channels to patients, connect to partner ecosystems, and ensure clinicians are working efficiently and safely.

You've likely seen some version of the technology adoption bell curve. It offers a way to map how people and organizations tend to adopt new technologies at varying rates. This adoption curve is essentially about weighing the trade-offs between opportunity and risk:

  • Innovators and early adopters represent technology enthusiasts who are open to experimentation and collaboration, adhere to Agile principles, and often have a digital-first mindset.

  • The early majority represent the pragmatists who take a bit longer to invest in new technology, hoping to learn from early adopters to avoid some implementation missteps or wait for more improved iterations of a given solution.

  • The late majority represent those who are much more risk averse and unwilling to invest in new technology until they have seen a threshold of proven-use cases—these organizations tend to be much more reactive to market pressures when making decisions.

  • The laggards are those who adopt a new technology lasteither because they simply don't have the resources to test and use new technology or they are full-blown skeptics.

Where most health care organizations should focus their investments

Regarding COVID-19, the clear priority from a technology perspective has been around telehealth. Given the huge push to keep people at home, the risk of infecting others through exposure, and the hope of not overwhelming health providers with unnecessary foot traffic, the use of virtual care and messaging has skyrocketed.

Webinar tomorrow: How COVID-19 is transforming telehealth—now and in the future

The federal government has been working alongside regulatory bodies and payers to alleviate some of the historical restrictions we've seen with payment and HIPAA privacy. These actions may introduce some long-term complications, but for the sake of expanding capacity, they make telehealth an increasingly attractive measure to respond to COVID-19. My colleagues have already dived deeper into this topic of telehealth here and here.

Telehealth is getting some much-needed attention, but it really comprises only one part of what should be a broader digital front door strategy. The most progressive health providers are using all of the technologies at their disposal to engage with patients along the care continuum. A sample patient journey and some of the ways technology influences each step is shown below.

Other ways technology can be used against COVID-19

  • Industry collaborations use technology to scale efforts. We've seen new partnerships between technology vendors, startup accelerators, research institutes, and pharma companies that seek to leverage big data (e.g., confirmed cases, social media, population densities, supply chain, and travel patterns), DNA sequencing tools, cloud platforms, open APIs, and AI to help medical experts and public health officials better understand the structure of the disease, track outbreaks, escalate virtual clinical trials, and eventually create vaccines.

  • AI offers life-saving predictive and prescriptive capabilities. Not only is AI instrumental in analyzing big data for clinical decision making and drug discovery, but it has also be used to predict new population outbreaks (e.g., hotspot analysis) and evaluate admitted COVID-19 patients to predict further patient deterioration. AI's intelligent automation can then help with capacity planning and staff prioritization to ensure high-risk patients are receiving care. Finally, drones and robots are offering alternative ways to transport materials and medications, assist with lifting or moving patients, and disinfect rooms using UV light.

  • The internet of things (IoT) supplies a wealth of data. An ecosystem of connected devices is constantly tracking patients at home and in care settings to collect data that may serve to signal who is at risk for infection. Wearables, mobile apps, ingestibles, virtual assistants, smart thermometers, and other sensor technology can help to evaluate a person's breathing rate, heart activity, body temperature, speech patterns, physical movement, and more. Organizations that can pool that data into a repository and overlay an analytics and machine learning layer on top can start to draw out valuable insight.

  • Niche technologies play a role. Companies like XR Health are working with health providers to distribute virtual reality (VR) headsets for telehealth support groups for those in quarantine. Apart from checking in with clinicians, VR offers the opportunity for patients to combat social isolation, anxiety, and stress. Even 3D printing is having a moment, with organizations getting creative given the shortage of critical supplies to treat COVID-19. 3D printing companies have started to assist with expanding manufacturing capacity and repairing equipment, including printing face masks, respirator valves, and other supplies.

  • Major EHR vendors are doing their part too. For example, Athenahealth has started to integrate the latest CDC guidance into its free mobile decision support application, Epocrates, to help guide clinicians treating COVID-19 patients. Allscripts has also sought ways to help their clients, introducing a telehealth implementation service within its patient engagement platform, FollowMyHealth, and an automated virtual triage tool for its EHR. Providers should be looking to their EHR vendors to help find creative ways to leverage their core systems to respond to the current crisis.

Looking past the pandemic

For years, we've spoken to IT leaders who wanted greater prioritization and support from their C-suite for implementing foundational IT competencies that could help build future-oriented digital health platforms. But these requests have often been met with some harsh realities around slim business margins, unclear ROIs, or a lack of reimbursement. Not to mention a crowded vendor market that often touts a broad array of untested solutions.

After this pandemic passes, there is no doubt that our health care industry will undergo a broad-scale evaluation of our efforts and consider how we can better prepare ourselves for future outbreaks. This COVID-19 experience will influence future decisions regarding IT investment, staffing, and strategy at an organizational level, but will also act as a catalyst to reassess how payers, regulatory agencies, and the government can better support, fund, and accelerate approval of innovative technologies that help prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. We are confident that early adopters and digitally mature organizations will be far ahead of the curve.

For those looking to learn a bit more about how COVID-19 is transforming telehealth, check out our new webinar.

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Your top resources for coronavirus readiness

You're no doubt being inundated with a ton of information on how to prepare for possible patients with the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19). To help you ensure the safety of your staff and patients, we pulled together the available resources on how to safely manage and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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