Many U.S. hospitals and other health care providers are dealing with the kind of burden our nation hasn’t seen for generations. For deliverers of care, the devastating effects of COVID-19 are being compounded by the disease’s impacts on clinicians’ well-being and institutions’ financial sustainability. As providers and patients look for hopeful signs, innovation presents a promising and lasting path back to “normal.”
While many in the healthcare industry continue to focus on responding to the COVID crisis, other healthcare executives and planners are now turning their attention to longer term strategies. For some, the goal may be survival. More fortunate providers are taking steps to ensure that the lessons learned from the crisis serve to make their organizations stronger, more resilient and ultimately more successful.
Just as necessity is the mother of invention, crisis is often the catalyst for innovation. World War II gave birth to the jet engine, synthetic rubber and oil, pressurized cabins on aircraft, radar, missile guidance systems, nuclear technology and a lot more. Many of these wartime innovations have become a regular part of everyday modern life. Similarly, the COVID crisis is forging global public/private partnerships and creative invention at a pace that in more ordinary circumstances might have taken years to develop if it at all.
By in large the industry has recognized that innovation has been and will be key to helping put the COVID crisis behind us. And, as has been true throughout history, this global crisis continues to stimulate strategic partnerships and innovations that will - and should - survive long after the crisis has passed.
Profiled below are a few of these innovations and partnerships. The list is far from exhaustive, but provides a representative illustration of the breadth and velocity of innovation in the healthcare industry as some of the global economy’s best minds turn their talents to defeating a single, common enemy.
Here in the U.S., the COVID-19 response has been hampered in many places by shortages of tests, inadequate supplies, a scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect front line healthcare workers and too few ventilators for the critically ill. Some innovations address these problems, such as James Dyson’s new design for ventilators for the British Government. Developed in just 10-days, Dyson (of vacuum cleaner fame) expects to ship 15,000 ventilators starting this month.
The U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) fast-tracked approval of solutions created by scientists at the The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to expand and accelerate COVID-19 testing. Using a “recipe” developed by medical center researchers in just 24-hours, the team then collaborated with the university’s colleges of engineering and dentistry to 3D print more than 50,000 swabs for test kits to be distributed to hospitals across Ohio. Their innovative solutions are going to be shared nationwide.
While manufacturing and supply chain have been the subject of some innovations, most new thinking appears to be coming in the form of technology. More specifically, technology tools that coordinate and optimize the delivery of care at scale and reduce person-to-person contact. And, while there’s no downplaying the tragedy and anxiety of the crisis we’re in, we can’t help but be encouraged by the lasting benefits this emergency continues to inspire.
HCA Healthcare, the nation’s largest healthcare provider, has formed a partnership with Google Cloud and SADA to develop a data portal, accessible to hospitals across the nation, to help communities respond more effectively to COVID-19. According to their press release, “the open data platform will help accelerate analysis and response by aggregating data on ICU bed and ventilator utilization, testing results and total number of patient visits to America’s hospital systems.
Seeding the system, which is expected to go live this week, “HCA will provide statistical data from its 185 hospitals, structured in a manner to comply with HIPAA and other applicable restrictions.” HCA has invited groups representing approximately 4,000 hospitals to join and share data on the platform. Hospitals interested in learning more and submitting data are invited to visit onboarding.nationalresponseportal.com.
Apple is also joining Google in the COVID-19 innovation race. The two companies announced in a release a “joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus - with user privacy and security central to the design.” The contact tracing technology is designed to “protect people and get society back up and running.” Noting the important work already being done by public health authorities, universities and NGOs around the world to develop opt-in contact tracing technology, Apple and Google “will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing…while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.”
Health systems and hospitals are also innovating at a heightened pace. In an industry analysis co-authored by physicians and administrators for the Harvard Business Review on April 3, 2020, titled, “How hospitals are using AI to Battle COVID-19”, the authors list multiple innovations including Partners Healthcare’s collaboration with Providence St. Joseph Health System to deploy Providence’s online screening and triage tool. Developed in partnership with Microsoft, the tool served more than 40,000 patients in its first week - an unprecedented scale necessitated by the acute need in one of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19.
Other innovations designed to scale services using innovative digital tools for care administration and patient engagement include Baidu’s no-contact infrared sensor system and the artificial intelligence (AI) system developed by Tampa General Hospital’s in collaboration with Care.ai. at the health system’s facilities’ entrances to intercept individuals with potential symptoms from visiting patients.
An article in the Journal of Informatics in Health and Biomedicine (JAMIA) describes UC San Diego Health’s implementation of technological support important for optimizing clinical management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The article and corresponding paper shares analysis of UC San Diego Health’s adaptation of the Epic Electronic Health Record (EHR) system for rapid screening, laboratory testing, clinical decision support, reporting and patient-facing technology related to COVID-19.
UC San Diego didn’t stop there. As reported by Becker’s Health IT, the health system went on to develop an artificial intelligence algorithm which it has applied to more than 2,000 lung X-ray images to help radiologists more quickly identify signs of early pneumonia in COVID-19 patients. Partnering with Amazon Web Services for a clinical research study, the project “aims to quickly detect pneumonia and better distinguish between COVID-19 patients likely in need of more supportive care in the hospital and those who could be monitored at home.”
This relatively short list of industry innovations represents the tip of the iceberg. Not included here are the many promising endeavors under way globally to expand telehealth solutions, find better treatments for COVID-19 victims and, ultimately, develop a vaccine. Driven as they are by the determination to protect human life, these efforts are emblematic of healthcare innovation at its very best. And although Dyson may not make ventilators in the long term, or the partnerships between Google, Apple and Amazon Web Services and healthcare providers may not endure, the fact that the industry and technologists have found a better way will certainly lead to lasting change in healthcare delivery.
Looking beyond the COVID-19 crisis, one can imagine how innovations developed initially to support a more effective response to this public health crisis might be employed in other healthcare disciplines.
For many healthcare providers, the next crisis will likely be financial. Whether it’s because they’ve been treating COVID-19 patients at a net loss or cancelling and postponing other treatments to keep their patients safe, hospitals across the country are experiencing unprecedented financial losses. These have led to large scale employee furloughs, facility closures and - for many - the possibility of bankruptcy or failure.
Many of the principles embodied in the innovations listed above are applicable to solving healthcare’s next crisis, the financial one. Here, we believe patients have an important role to play. As we’ve noted in previous articles, patients now account for more than a third of provider revenue. But the systems healthcare providers use to collect payments were developed for insurance companies. They have not performed well for patients or their providers.
Loyale Patient Financial Manager was developed precisely for this situation. Leveraging aggregated patient data to intelligently segment patient populations, our open platform operates at the core of a hospital’s patient revenue cycle. With personalized, omnichannel communications, multiple payment options (including financing) and a leading self-serve online portal, our users report better patient satisfaction and better financial outcomes.
Many of the innovations developed in direct response to the COVID-19 crisis will have a lasting impact on the cost and quality of care, in America and around the world. We applaud the scientists, researchers, engineers, clinicians and others who are working around-the-clock to protect us all. And we’re grateful to be playing an important role helping solve healthcare’s next crisis.