Under COVID-19 pressure, healthcare finally embraces new digital tools

With the abrupt transition to telehealth, the paradigm of care has shifted from legacy thinking to digital innovation
By Anthony Pannozzo
04:20 pm
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About the author: Anthony Pannozzo is chief design officer (for North American and Asia) and global healthcare lead at frog, a design consultancy and a company of the Altran Group.

Healthcare has often been accused (fairly and unfairly) of being too slow to change or adapt to new technologies and the ideas they inspire. While change is hard for everyone, in a space like healthcare change meets the especially strong headwinds of regulation, reimbursement, legacy systems and institutionalized workflows.

But the COVID-19 pandemic single-handedly swept all those barriers aside. FDA emergency use authorizations paved the way for extraordinary innovation and speed to market for a host of new ventilator concepts, test kits and vaccine trials. Social distancing policies at hospitals and clinics created a surge in demand for telehealth services. With regards to ventilators, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits, this pandemic has certainly exposed an extraordinary lack of preparedness in our healthcare system. But in the case of telehealth, the pandemic may ultimately be credited with catalyzing a fundamental shift in how we provide and receive care.

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According to a recent McKinsey report, healthcare professionals (HCPs) now see between 50 and 175 times the number of patients virtually than before the pandemic. These numbers are striking, yet unsurprising, given that almost all parties involved had no traditional care alternatives available. The really inspiring news is that 74 percent of telehealth users report high levels of satisfaction, with 64 percent of HCPs expressing comfort using the tools and systems. This suggests that once the forcing mechanism of the pandemic wanes, many folks will be inclined to choose telehealth as a care pathway moving forward. This suddenly large user base should give healthcare organizations the confidence to further invest in additional digital health solutions.

From telehealth to digital health

Think of this moment like the early days of the smartphone. Most of us purchased an iPhone in 2008 to replace our iPods, access the internet or actually make phone calls. But once we (and a host of creative startups) experienced the platform, a whole new world began to unfold. Instagram, Waze, WeChat and responsive design transformed how we use our phones. Now that millions of folks are onboarded to telehealth, they are primed to further embrace additional digital health solutions like digital therapeutics (DTx), remote monitoring and software as a medical device (SaamD). In doing so, they will increase their access to professional care of all kinds (no matter who they are or where they live), better engage in preventive self-care and reduce stresses on the “legacy” healthcare system. All of this can add up to the kind of win-win benefits that are typically elusive in a system with competing priorities and monetization models.

Building on this momentum, Telehealth platforms can expand by finding inspiration in DTx (defined as the domain of digital health that deliver evidence-based therapeutic interventions to patients that are driven by high-quality software programs to prevent, manage or treat a broad spectrum of physical, mental and behavioral conditions). Many of the most successful DTx companies (like Virta, Omada Health and Amicomed) analyze near continuous streams of patient data (like heart rate, weight or blood sugar), and provide individualized nutrition therapy and activity guidance to help people reduce high blood pressure and manage, or even prevent, diabetes. These digital solutions offer people with near on-demand “care” in between “physical” visits with their HCPs. They also provide HCPs with insight into how their patients are actually doing in between visits and routine lab work, rather than leaving them to rely on self-reporting. As telemedicine continues to grow, imagine how integrating solutions inspired by these innovations can help people live healthier lives and prevent costly hospitalizations?

Then there is Pear Therapeutics’ reSET-O and mobile app that helps people manage addiction. reSET-O is available by prescription. It leverages clinically proven cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people suffering with addiction develop the skills to change negative thinking patterns so they can identify and avoid triggers for relapse. By providing skill-building “therapy” through an app, reSET-O addresses the limited accessibility of the healthcare system to millions of Americans. Lack of access to healthcare is one of the most harmful social determinants of health, and it disproportionately affects communities of color. Significant improvements to access, inspired by digital solutions like reSET-O, should benefit those who have been shamefully underserved.

Digital-first care

Spurred by a global pandemic, millions of people have now experienced a new paradigm in digital health, and they’re not likely to go back to the old legacy systems. While this shift has been abrupt, it is showing signs of sustainability. The healthcare industry has been talking for years about how to reduce costs and improve outcomes. A shift to digital-first care may not solve all the healthcare system’s problems, but it does have the potential to dramatically democratize access to care and empower us to prevent disease and live healthier lives. To my colleagues in healthcare: The moment for digital health has arrived. It’s time to ditch the legacy and start investing in the tools of the future.

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