How telemedicine is being used on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis

Yesterday MassChallenge hosted a summit on innovation in the age of the coronavirus crisis, and panelists discussed how providers are implementing new digital programs into their toolbox.
By Laura Lovett
03:40 pm

On the frontlines of the coronavirus, crisis providers are tapping into digital mechanisms to communicate with patients and track the spread of the disease.

Yesterday MassChallenge hosted a summit on innovation in the age of the coronavirus crisis, which included a panel on how tech can play a role in direct patient care.

"If there is any silver linings it's that the [American Medical Association] along with many other organizations have been working for telehealth adoption for some time. Obviously it is really having its moment right now and [has been] able to step up to keep providers and patients safe on the front lines," Meg Barron, vice president of Digital Health Strategy at the American Medical Association, said during the summit.

She noted that health systems all over the country are reporting a rapid increase in adoption, and mentioned that Cleveland Clinic's telehealth calls had a 15-fold increase over the last week.

"We are doing more virtual visits in a given day than we did the entire proceeding year, so things can change," John Brownstein, Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children's Hospital, said during the panel. "I don't see us going back to the way things were, in a positive way. I think we've opened physicians' eyes, opened up the administrators' eyes, patients are recognizing the value. ... It has focused our team to deploy this at scale and these kinds of digital practices become core to the practice of medicine going forward."

While the technology has been around for over 20 years, it struggled to make its way into the mainstream. Now many provider organizations are looking for better ways to use the tech to its full potential.

"I work at the VA, and the VA has had telemedicine in place for a while, but hasn't used it at scale," Jennifer Joe, physician and CEO of Vanguard Health, said. "Also potentially it hasn't used it in all of the applications that it could be used in."

Treating coronavirus patients isn't the only way that providers are turning to this technology. With folks across the country in isolation and quarantine, it has also become a way for patients to connect with their doctor about mental health.

"It's a very stressful time for all of us. It's stressful for the providers, it's a stressful time for the community," Joe said. "There are a lot of unknowns. It's hard to be home with your children while you are trying to figure out work. I've heard stories that the use of telemedicine for addressing those issues has been surprisingly good. Where I've seen those stories is where you already have an established system – so you already have a primary care doctor, or you already have someone who normally takes care of you. They did not have telehealth but they've spun it up in the last week, and they are much more accessible than they have been before."

Baron stressed that the importance of patients being able to maintain that connection with their primary provider.

"While we commend the fact CMS has been limiting the regulations around telehealth for sure, at the same time we definitely advocate for the continuity of care and the strong bond of the patient-physician relationship," Baron said. "The fact that so many practices have been able to spin up telehealth options to make that happen is extremely commendable."

While telemedicine may have a spike in adoption, the coronavirus crisis has forced startups to make some difficult choices.

"On one hand, there is some incredible work and pivoting, that we are seeing from companies ... that have been able to adapt their product and be incredibly fast and nimble, and able to offer it for free to health systems. Then we are seeing incredible efforts on the part of the IT group at the hospital... so now is a great moment to start working with the digital health ecosystem," Brownstein said. "On the other hand, there is a real challenge. A lot of our efforts have come to a standstill ... We are worried they may die on the vine because they haven't had the lift."

It's no secret the market has seen a slew of new features added onto digital health products to address the needs of the virus. However, not all startups are designed to deal with this pandemic.

"So looking at the economic side of this," Nick Doughty, managing director of MassChallenge HealthTech, said. "Not every startup is it appropriate to pivot and go after COVID-19. We may need their solutions in 6 months but there is a reality that some of them might be put on pause."

The overarching message from panelists: Use tech when it makes sense.

"It's threading that needle appropriately to be valuable but not taking advantage of a moment where we are all spread so thin," Brownstein said.

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