During the coronavirus pandemic, 'innovation isn't optional, it's required': Key insights from UPMC Enterprise President Tal Heppenstall

Hospitals and health systems across the country are focused on their response to the coronavirus pandemic. In hot spots like Seattle or New York City, hospital CEOs are already in the midst of responding to the crisis; in other communities, executives are developing protocol to prepare for more cases.

With all the focus and resources devoted to caring for COVID-19 patients, will healthcare innovation departments suffer? Not necessarily, says UPMC Enterprises President Tal Heppenstall. Now more than ever, health systems are relying on the technology and consumer innovations infrastructure to ramp up community education, telehealth capacity and data analytics to track COVID-19 cases.

"The pace of innovation at UPMC around digital solutions and telemedicine to improve the patient experience remains swift," Mr. Heppenstall said. "There is research happening at Pitt to help us care for our patients that is moving much faster than it did three weeks ago. Some of our research and developments have allowed ups to develop our own coronavirus tests that we can provide to patients. We are also working on several different ways to prevent or provide a vaccine to help solve this problem. I think innovation is really driven by need, and the need created by the coronavirus pandemic will drive innovative solutions that can move quickly and be distributed around the world."

Before the first cases of the coronavirus emerged, UPMC was already focused on telemedicine as the way of the future and developing an infrastructure around it. The outbreak accelerated the pace of that development alongside the consumer interface, or patient portal, that allows patients to connect with their care providers. Some physicians have been advocates for the telemedicine process while others were less excited about it prior to the outbreak.

"The outbreak is nothing to be happy about, but it has forced a lot of conversations that would have taken years to happen otherwise," said Mr. Heppenstall. "We need to figure out how to keep all patients safe and realizing that the situation is changing by the hour, we want to try to stay on top of it and provide the resources that UPMC's community needs."

UPMC has seen an increase in virtual visits and expects that trend to continue. He sees payment systems around telemedicine changing to reimburse an adequate amount for telemedicine visits as the solution becomes more customary.

Another key technology investment that the outbreak accelerated is the infrastructure for working from home. The health system has invested in that infrastructure over the past several years, and now it's being put to the test so that 33,000 employees can do their jobs remotely.

"That investment has paid off," said Mr. Heppenstall.

Looking ahead, Mr. Heppenstall sees the biggest opportunity to disrupt healthcare as being about to provide clinicians with data to make the best decisions for their patients at the lowest cost. "We aim to develop technology to do that over time, and that remains top of mind for us right now to make sure we are supporting our physicians and preparing to take care of the patients in our region," Mr. Heppenstall said. "The federal government and regulators are enabling a lot of entities, whether it's large companies or small startups, to be more innovative. There will be some successes and some failures; it's all part of the process."

One key example of technology that could meet these goals is natural processing language development, which makes sure that unstructured data contained in the clinician notes is gathered, prioritized and displayed appropriately for clinicians and patients. UPMC has been working on that for many years and is working on getting it into the clinical care space.

"Whether it's the healthcare we are delivering in the U.S. or whether it's something we are rolling out internationally in China or Italy, where we've been for 25 years, our goal is to be the resource that our communities need and then build things that are distributed around the world," said Mr. Heppenstall. "It is a difficult time for us all, but innovation isn't optional, it's required."



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