Health innovation insider: 7 rapid-fire Qs with LifeBridge Health's innovation chief Dr. Daniel Durand

For Daniel Durand, MD, chief innovation officer of Baltimore-based LifeBridge Health, the silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the shift in healthcare delivery and biomedical research fueling innovation growth over the past year.

Dr. Durand, who also serves as vice president of research and chair of radiology at LifeBridge Health, told Becker's Hospital Review that the "risk benefit" equation of medical research and healthcare delivery during this time has made way for long-lasting innovations within the industry.

"Many of these innovations, such as telehealth and mRNA vaccines to name a few, will be saving lives for centuries – long after COVID is simply a word in history books describing a few unfortunate years," he said.

Here, Dr. Durand shares his rapid-fire insights on digital transformations spurred by the pandemic and further opportunities for growth in the healthcare space.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What COVID-19 data dashboard do you find yourself checking the most? 

Dr. Daniel Durand: We've all probably switched our preferences a few times as the pandemic has progressed through its phases. I started out addicted to the Johns Hopkins and NY Times sites and over the summer I gravitated toward the CNN and WHO sites. More recently, I have been fixed on the vaccination statistics at www.ourworldindata.org. While we would all like to see the needle move faster, the truth is that the vaccination dashboards give us something even more valuable than information – hope.

Q: If you had to choose just one, which one of your organization's IT achievements has made you the most proud during the pandemic?

DD: This one is easy – early in the pandemic, LifeBridge and GetWellNetwork were among the first in the country to create and deploy a smartphone care pathway that guides patients through the process of self-quarantining after getting a COVID-19 test at one of our hospitals or drive-through sites. The app poses the patient daily questions about symptoms, reminders for temperature checks, etc., with abnormal results escalated to providers within our virtual hospital. Communication is bidirectional and real-time, so patients can use the app to call or text our virtual hospital directly if they have an issue not covered by the app. But the best part of the program was that we used the app to recruit plasma donors. So this care 'loop' went full circle as the individual was diagnosed, quarantined, recovered and then had the opportunity to 'take the fight to the virus' and donate their antibodies to another patient in need.

Q: In which ways do you think the pandemic has catalyzed innovation in health IT?

DD: The pandemic has taken away everyone's excuses as to why telehealth cannot work and instead made them focus on how and why it must work. Before the pandemic, most traditional brick-and-mortar providers in our industry saw telehealth as a threat and were thus quite biased to focus on its shortcomings. Not surprisingly, they were quick to point out why telehealth was not ideal – or even 'dangerous' – for  'most' encounters. Payers sang the same tune, as they have always been wary of the potential for unchecked overutilization of telehealth. Of course, during the pandemic all of this changed and virtually all healthcare providers were forced to embrace telehealth in order to survive financially, and payers were forced to reimburse for it from a regulatory and PR perspective. Lo and behold – telehealth is actually perfectly safe and probably better than in-person visits for many kinds of encounters. Nothing really changed, the excuses simply vanished and free market forces were finally allowed to take hold.

Q: How do you think the pandemic has shined a greater light on predictive analytics?

DD: The intellectual and operational challenges of having a health system learn to deal with a brand new disease have allowed the nascent predictive analytics capabilities within health systems to shine during the pandemic. Probably the two most prevalent use cases have been 1) using AI and 'big data' approaches to crunch EHR and real-time physiological data in order to predict patient deterioration and better allocate ICU resources and 2) using epidemiological models coupled with business intelligence tools to better predict hospital demand and the associated staffing and supply chain resources, for example personal protective equipment and ventilators needed during 'surge' periods. In both instances, LifeBridge Health and other health systems have had a noticeably more organized response to the second and third wave as our analytics capabilities have helped us 'figure out' COVID. Predictive analytics have allowed us to be nimble enough to modulate the way we do business in real-time in order to meet the rapidly changing realities that the virus dictates.

Q: How would you most like to see health IT further adapt to the pandemic?

DD: I think we need to harness the power of self-scheduling, mobile patient engagement and at-home testing to help create true scalable solutions that will allow society to meet the great challenges looming before us in 2021. How can we vaccinate the public as quickly as possible? How can we use data on COVID-19 status and immunity to continue to re-open society in a thoughtful fashion that is both informed by science but preserves personal liberties? Health IT will be at the center of our answers to both of these pressing questions.

Q: What's the first word that comes to mind when you think about your innovation team's response to COVID-19? 

DD: One word: Resilience. If I had to a pick a full sentence it would be 'the hotter the fire the stronger the steel.'

I am clearly biased, but I have found my team members to be truly inspiring points of light during these dark times. They have dealt with the stress, the fear, the long days and vanishing weekends, and above all the staggering human loss of 2020, and they have never allowed it to break their momentum. As a group they just keep getting better and better at what they do, and this means that they are present and there for one another despite the physical distances that so often separate them now. Their collective determination to advance projects forward despite the insanity and complexity of the pandemic has been, very often, what has kept me going. I am truly privileged to work with them.

Q: What's been the biggest roadblock to COVID-19 innovation? 

DD: The same as always – the twin devils of healthcare innovation; overzealous regulation and associated fears, real and imagined, over medicolegal liability. The silver lining of the pandemic is that the 'risk benefit' equation of healthcare delivery and biomedical research has shifted significantly, and it has allowed innovation to flourish over the past 12 months. Many of these innovations, such as telehealth and mRNA vaccines to name a few, will be saving lives for centuries – long after COVID is simply a word in history books describing a few unfortunate years. Wars and plagues come and go, but the medical innovations they breed last forever. The real question we should be asking ourselves is how we can perpetuate these conditions so that healthcare innovation can continue at this pace during good times.

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