As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, the healthcare system turned to digital tools to predict disease spread, analyze massive amounts of data, and diagnose and treat patients remotely. Virtual medicine and telehealth have provided a way to ensure physical distance and prevent the spread of infection among healthcare workers and patients.
In a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show 2021 titled “Digital Health in 2020: Rules of Contagion,” tech industry and health system specialists gathered to assess how the healthcare industry successfully adopted new technologies and what the future may hold.
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How Tech Has Been Keeping Tabs on the Coronavirus
In the conversation, led by David Kirkpatrick, the founder of Techonomy Media, Vivian Lee, MD, the president of platforms for Verily Life Sciences, described her company’s collaboration with the federal government in creating Project Baseline, a tool for coronavirus risk screening. Verily Life Sciences also began working with employers and universities to build the Healthy at Work and Healthy at School programs, which combined testing, symptom tracking, data analytics, and the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health authorities. The program includes an app component that allows users to check their symptoms and schedule a lab test.
Dr. Lee highlighted the value of using data analytics to understand more about the spread of the virus in each particular environment.
“With the testing data, we may say, ‘Oh, we’re starting to detect a trend — maybe in a subpopulation. Maybe your athletes are a little bit more at risk than your PhD scientists, or maybe your frontline workers in the plant are more at risk than the people in the office,” said Lee.
In a similar vein, Inder Singh, the founder and CEO of Kinsa, told the panel that his company’s app-based network of smart thermometers (now used in two million households across the country) is able to detect trends in febrile illness (showing symptoms of fever).
“The reason we invented that product is for the purposes of building an early warning system for outbreaks,” said Singh.
Initially, before COVID-19 hit, the Kinsa system was helping identify areas where flu was prevalent and spreading. At the beginning of the outbreak, the framework also revealed where COVID-19 was developing.
“We saw febrile illness was up in many parts of the country, and that’s not what we expected,” said Singh. Areas that had unusually high peaks of febrile illness turned out to be hot spots for COVID-19. “We caught COVID-19 everywhere in the country three weeks before cases started piling up in states,” he said.
Both Lee and Singh note that virtual systems have health applications that go beyond uses for COVID-19. Verily’s technology, for example, has been used by Onduo, a virtual diabetes clinic that helps people lower their A1C levels (a measure of blood glucose control) and develop healthier lifestyle habits.
“COVID created this perfect storm where it’s advantageous to everyone [patients and healthcare providers] to think about moving to digital health,” said Lee.
Sustaining Telemedicine in a Post-Pandemic Environment
Lee Schwamm, MD, the vice president of digital health virtual care at Mass General Brigham Hospital, in Boston, agrees that the pandemic, in effect, cleared the path for virtual medicine. In some ways, the crisis was a wake-up call. The healthcare community realized that the technological infrastructure wasn’t ready for the demand.
“As a country, we were largely unprepared,” he said. “The internet service providers were not prepared for the load [and] the video conferencing applications were not prepared for the demand.”
The outbreak pushed the healthcare industry to focus on enhancing these technologies, and now virtual healthcare is thriving and only expected to grow and improve.
A contributing factor has been policies established by Medicare and private insurers during the outbreak to pay providers who conducted telehealth visits the same rate as for office visits.
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In the panel discussion, Dr. Schwamm stressed that a major question going forward is how to fairly address the costs of virtual medicine and how those costs are covered by the insurers.
Schwamm told Everyday Health, “Should you have to pay the exact same amount for an in-person visit as a telehealth visit? I think, in the short run, yes. Because in the short term, it’s all additive costs for the hospital; the doctor still spends the same amount of time with you, but now I have to buy a telemedicine system, I have to train everybody, I have to give everybody equipment. If people are working from home to do this, I have to give them laptops or web cameras — so there’s a big upfront expense.”
When the technological end gets “up to scale,” he can envision a fee restructuring. “I would say that the professional fees should be the same, because it’s the same work,” said Schwamm. “But the technical fee … maybe that’s not paid at quite the same amount.”
Schwamm is looking for the payer community “to pay at some proportion of parity to in-person care.”
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Deneen Vojta, MD, the executive vice president of research and development with UnitedHealth Group, a for-profit managed healthcare company and health insurer, envisions that virtual health will continue to direct patients to more self-care, which may in turn lead them to rely on doctor services only when it is most essential.
“We are going to have the data and the connection between patients and their doctors to actually realize the promise of facilitating self-service,” said Dr. Vojta. “In every other part of our lives, we have that — you don’t go into a bank anymore unless there’s something you really need and there’s some reason or some higher-level transaction.”
Although virtual healthcare seems to be here to stay, Schwamm urges consumers not to take it for granted. “I would encourage people, if they have used and have found virtual care to be helpful, to communicate with their elected representatives and their insurance companies and their employers that they want these benefits to persist.”