The legacy of COVID-19: How key innovations will outlive the pandemic

Uncertainty breeds innovation, and these are among the most uncertain times in healthcare.

Many health systems across the nation have called all-hands-on-deck to treat patients with coronavirus. IT departments, digital technology teams, as well as innovation leaders, are rising to the occasion. Common challenges they are addressing include:

• An explosion of telehealth visits
• Remote inpatient consults and family visits
• Online scheduling and the automation of patient triage
• Artificial intelligence to allocate resources and make clinical decisions
• Supporting remote work and communication for team members
• Mobilizing teams to create PPE
• Ensuring connectivity at remote COVID-19 testing sites and expanding capacity

The change in telehealth is one many predict will continue long after COVID-19 pandemic. As both, patients and clinicians, are exposed to telehealth, the demand for streamlined and immediate care will grow. The integrated telehealth capabilities will also boost the health system's data gathering and reporting efforts for clinical care, as well as enhance workflow management.

"We are seeing major transformations, not just in telehealth, but also in data gathering," said Neil Gomes, executive vice president for technology innovation and consumer experience and chief digital officer of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health. "Even while we are building digital solutions for the COVID-19 crisis, executives, leaders, and managers realize that these systems can also give them data as quickly as they can store it and analyze it. So how do we get it to them at the point of decision-making? You get it through business intelligence. And consequently, almost every solution we have built now or acquired during this time has had an expressed need for some sort of data front-end. Almost all of our internal clients are asking to rapidly review data using dashboards, to be able to analyze trends, to see if things are getting better or worse, if systems are working as they would like them too, etc. And they also want to receive all of this data in a visual format." Jefferson's Digital Innovation and Consumer Experience (DICE) Group that Mr. Gomes leads, is able to report on the data in a visual format in real-time so that physicians and executives can make decisions based on real-time data and insights.

On the platform side, Mr. Gomes sees more people wanting to use the cloud in the future because it is a scalable and secure platform that can rapidly adapt to new demand scenarios and new business models like those that healthcare has had to adopt during the COVID-19 crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is also breaking down barriers to connectivity between devices and systems, a trend likely to continue in the healthcare space. Healthcare systems are starting to discover the Internet of Things (IoT) and how it can be used to speed up care, automate certain functions, and improve efficiency.

For COVID-19 patients, clinicians manage the disease using devices such as thermometers, pulse oximeters, etc. and more complex equipment as the disease progresses. With population health management scenarios like those presented by COVID-19, coordination will be required not only between humans, but also between machines and programs. This type of connectivity is already present in some of the technology we use, we just have to start to use it, point it at the right data sources, and design logic that enables cascading automated or human actions to improve response times and better manage such conditions. IoT solutions can also be used by government and health systems to manage distribution of supplies to areas of great need and to anticipate critical needs before there is a shortage. Such systems could also search for suppliers and automatically order new supplies when needed without staff intervention.

"Digital platforms that leverage the IoT and enable orchestration between machines and humans will make care more efficient and even proactive," said Mr. Gomes. "These will be expectations and not nice-to-haves going forward."

In the future, healthcare consumers will expect their pharmacies and home assistants such as Alexa to integrate with their health records and trigger actions. He also sees more investment in artificial intelligence because it can scale almost indefinitely.

"AI is already helping physicians provide enhanced care via differential diagnosis tools that learn with each decision, chatbots that can help with patient triage, and voice assistants that enable patients to control their hospital or clinic environment when they are with us," said Mr. Gomes. "These are just some early examples that we have exercised during this crisis because they can scale without needing additional resources and can be available at any time and place to our patients."

Jefferson has already invested in many of the digital technologies needed to support a robust innovation and patient experience program. But Mr. Gomes said healthcare innovation does not always require a lot of investment to boost the system's ability to care for patients. What is more important is strategic investment and the identification of the right problems to solve.

"We are frugal in the way we do innovation because we get the best ideas in such an environment and you take responsibility for solving the problem yourself," said Mr. Gomes. "What is most important is to be willing to innovate and have the patience to find the right problems to solve. You also have to form innovation partnerships with your vendors and peer institutions and learn from them. You can also learn a lot from other industries.”

It is also helpful to have health system partners in innovation because you could then collaborate on innovation grants or for data gathering for better insights across different populations. Close collaboration with vendors can enable you to access cross-industry insights and apply their new technologies and solutions to healthcare.

"The real wealth of this will be in all of the methods, processes, and frameworks that are being built on the fly that are available to use in other similar types of situations. That is something all health systems can benefit from," said Mr. Gomes. "Do invest in digital health and patient experience and tie it into new technologies. Look at other industries for ideas about how to adapt what they are doing into the healthcare space. Reach out to other health systems to see what they're investing in and learn from their mistakes and successes. Investments in digital innovation have helped healthcare meet the challenge of COVID-19 and help our clinicians and patients through this time. What should not happen as we recover from this, is that we forget the lessons learned and return to business as usual. We must learn from this experience, leverage the technologies and digital innovations that came to our aid, and invest in them so that we can build even better business and experience models for healthcare that enable us to improve care and weather similar crises in the future."



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