We are living in a time when most of the world’s population has been confined within four walls in recent months. We practice social distancing whilst being staying connected with our near and dear ones across the globe using Hangouts/WhatsApp chats, go about our daily office routine through Zoom/Skype meetings, and get our groceries/essentials delivered via multiple apps.
Technology companies are exploring new avenues for their existing digital technologies and products.
Simply put, we are physically separated yet digitally connected – an off paradox. So, how is the healthcare industry, central to this pandemonium, handling the situation? Let’s leave out drug/vaccination discovery and other complexities of this contagion. The focus here is to understand how digital technologies have been leveraged to ensure that sustainable measures are taken to address patient and stakeholder’s key concerns.
We should acknowledge the fact that we are at a technological stage where AI systems like Alexa can diagnose ailments based on the symptoms we input. If we rewind to December 30, 2019 - Blue Dot, a company that uses AI to track and anticipate infectious diseases, spotted a report about a pneumonia of unknown etiology in China.
From then on, health tech companies are using this as an opportunity to explore new avenues for their existing digital technologies and products. They also have plans on expanding their service offerings to support the management of COVID-19, and develop new products to assist front line healthcare workers to the extent of acting as virtual care managers. Digital health technology is enabling effective pandemic management by the healthcare industry across areas such as early signal detection, identification, monitoring of symptoms & response to treatment, management of population health, awareness etc.
Some of these tools & technologies are listed below.
Remote and continuous monitoring
Tracking Population Health & Awareness
A lot of the tools and health technology mentioned enable distant monitoring andminimize interaction with infected patients. In this way, they reduce the risk of exposure to doctors and nurses apart from improving the quality of healthcare.
Digital for Mental Health
One can’t stress enough on the need for having mental health support to cope with the quarantine, hospital stays and in general dealing with anxiety and grief during such unprecedented times. Curatio has built a Facebook sort of healthcare social network platform that can be used by various health communities to facilitate patient meetups, support groups, rehab meetings. This platform is privacy and regulatory compliant as well. Sanvello, the digital behavioral healthcare solution, opened up its Premium content and uses a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, mood and health tracking to help people during these times.
Flourishing times of Telehealth Services
Telehealth services are in use extensively to minimize physical contact between patients and providers, known as “medical distancing”. Amwell’s telemedicine app usage has gone up by 158% in the US since January, while PlushCare reports that virtual appointments have increased by 70%. The latter even plans to introduce at-home testing kits for COVID-19. This surge in demand is also because of the relaxation of various guidelines for usage of telehealth services such as the announcement by Medicare – that it will pay physicians for telehealth services at the same rate as in-person visits for all diagnoses, not just services related to COVID-19.
Below figure depicts how telehealth is helping to enable medical distancing, thereby flattening the curve.
Physicians are also expanding their reach, even if they are quarantined, using telehealth solutions and related digital technologies. They have quickly adapted to the usage of telehealth devices and services.
Enabling arms of Healthcare
Payers are doing their part by waiving off costs for COVID-19 testing, hospital stays and suspending prior authorization requirements for post-acute care setting. Big players, such as United Healthcare, are also opening up a special enrollment period for commercial members. There is no better time than now for payers to promote digital technologies for healthcare in their portfolio to members through incentives, marketing campaigns, online training courses for healthcare workers etc. Some payers such as Blue Shield of California are waiving the ‘out of pocket’ costs for members when they use their virtual care service – Teladoc. They have also developed a new digital tool that hospitals can build into their websites to assist patients in navigating their symptoms and in seeking out information about the virus.
Providers across the world have quickly adopted digital health solutions for several end gains. These include reducing risk of exposure to the virus, providing continuous support to in-patients, distance monitoring and HCP stress management process. The extent of telemedicine features that hospitals deploy varies, it could start from investing in video hardware to facilitate remote consultations to telemedicine carts to conduct exams with hospitalized patients from outside their rooms. Some hospitals are evaluating the usage of robots to further reduce contact between providers and patients. There are a few challenges though, in terms of hardware for telehealth and quality connection within their facilities.
Government agencies are waiving restrictions on telehealth services. They are acting to quickly screen, select, promote and financially support digital health tools along the entire coronavirus crisis value chain. In U.S, FDA has enacted emergency policies permitting wider use of connected remote vital-sign monitors, and the FCC is bankrolling a major investment in telehealth infrastructure across a variety of provider organizations.
Beyond COVID-19 times
Though the adoption of health technology was slow initially, affected largely by concerns related to cost, reimbursement, increased need for hospital staff who can handle technology and credentialing rules across state line, its influence in the fight against this pandemic has been quite significant till now. There are new innovations taking place on a daily basis – most significant recent one being the capability of the Fitbit app to connect users with a doctor virtually and access information on exercising indoors. For stakeholders to adopt to the changing situation on a daily basis, there is a need for fluid decision making by all key players.
Below are some of the guidelines that they can act upon to survive this pandemic and sustain beyond.
Well-coordinated, digitally connected ecosystems including support from government, public and private payers, healthcare workers, and vendors have led to greater acceptance of digital health technologies. What remains to be seen is if this pandemic will act as a breakthrough point for the digital health industry.