How the pandemic catalyzed innovation in health IT, per 8 hospital execs

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated innovation at hospitals across the country by forcing them to adopt new, digitally focused ways of delivering care, paving the way for further tech-enabled improvements after the pandemic subsides.

Below, eight hospital and health system innovation leaders weigh in on how healthcare innovation trends have grown amid the pandemic.

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

Richard Zane, MD, chief innovation officer, UCHealth (Aurora, Colo.): It has allowed us to not have to put an asterisk or caveat before the term "telehealth" or "virtual health." It's simply technology-enabled actual care, instead of "virtual care" or "virtual health" or "virtual telehealth."

Claus Torp Jensen, PhD, chief digital officer, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York City): The real game changer is not actually health IT in isolation, but rather holistic innovation fueled by the fusion of clinical, digital and technology change. When we put our collective minds to a problem or opportunity, we can do so much more than any of us could do in isolation.

Eduardo Conrado, executive vice president and chief strategy and innovation officer at Ascension (St. Louis): We saw a marked change in the end-to-end patient experience as multiple touchpoints went digital with a preference for contactless interactions – scheduling, mobile registration, checking in at home and, of course, the physician visit. For those who choose to visit medical offices and emergency rooms – or must do so based on their conditions – digital tools are enabling a better experience there with features like a waitlist capability that helps patients avoid waiting rooms and instead show up at their allotted times and fast-pass directly to the assigned exam room. In addition, remote patient monitoring capabilities allow patients with an ongoing illness to return home, yet stay closely connected to clinical resources as they recover. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and confirmed our thinking around digital health. It's clear that virtual care and remote patient monitoring are both here to stay, and that provides tremendous clarity for our technology strategy.

Sara Vaezy, chief digital strategy and business development officer at Providence (Renton, Wash.): The pandemic exposed a huge number of patients and providers to innovative technology solutions — overcoming major adoption hurdles in months rather than years. It also increased risk tolerance within health systems and changed the regulatory landscape — potentially permanently. It opened up the degrees of freedom on new models of care — and the way we pay for that care.

It, however, has also accelerated the hard work traditionally required by disruptors like Amazon, CVS and others to get a foothold, so it raises the level of urgency for health systems to respond as well. 

Lisa Prasad, vice president and chief innovation officer, Henry Ford Health System (Detroit): Incredible new solutions have been introduced, and we have rapidly overcome adoption hurdles. At the fundamental level however, the pandemic has gotten us back to our values and priorities as they should be. We did projects with a different view of the return on investment. We collaborated better, solved problems together, struggled together and survived together.

Daniel Durand, MD, chief innovation officer, LifeBridge Health (Baltimore): 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.

Pankaj Jandwani, MD, chief innovation officer, MidMichigan Health (Midland, Mich.): The pandemic forced action on a ton of ideas, especially those previously in the queue for resource prioritization and clinician engagement. As the pandemic hit, everyone was on board with offering patients an easy way to connect virtually. The final thrust came with CMS and other payers offering at-par reimbursement for virtual visits. As we know, it takes people following new processes, not just technology for innovation to be successful.

Tom Andriola, vice chancellor of IT and data, UC Irvine: Innovation has always been there. What the pandemic did is accelerate progress. Throughout, our entire organization has demonstrated a different set of urgency, open-mindedness and risk tolerance. All that has led to, in the words of Vladimir Lenin, "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen."


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