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IT & Digital
6 min read
Aaron Bours

No Time to Waste: How COVID-19 is Catalyzing Digital Transformation in Healthcare

A Live Fireside Chat with Digital Health Executives: Recap

Change just couldn't wait. COVID-19 presented the healthcare sector with an unprecedented challenge. As concern over the spread of the virus grew, patients — adhering to social distancing measures — turned en masse to their health providers’ digital channels, creating significant backlogs in medical care, access, and delivery. In an effort to turn the tide, healthcare systems had to adapt at warp speed, harnessing the power of technology to deploy cost-effective, scalable solutions to rapidly meet growing demand.

COVID-19 effects on virtual health and telehealth

On June 23rd, as the U.S. braced for a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, we gathered Dr. Curtis Cole, CIO, Weill Cornell Medicine, Michael Archuleta, CIO, Mount San Rafael Hospital, and Adrin Mammen, AVP, Patient Access Transformation Officer, Montefiore Medical System — for a live fireside chat on how they’ve been championing digital transformation in their organizations, accelerating innovation while providing their patients with top-level care throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Here are the key takeaways from the event:

The Massive Expansion of Telehealth

According to a Sia Partners report, the emergence of COVID-19 brought an astounding 1500% increase in telehealth, virtual visits, and their overall utilization compared to pre-pandemic levels, a major transformation of healthcare delivery that did not pass over our panelists’ medical centers. It was a salient point of discussion, bringing to light the clear advantages and burgeoning challenges that emerged in the face of such record-breaking spikes in demand.

Dr. Cole highlighted several immediate problems Weill Cornell Medicine — an institution well poised to deliver telehealth — experienced right out the gate:

  • A gaping discrepancy in physician reimbursement for telehealth visits vs. in-house visits (approx. $35 vs. $500)
  • A need for in-patient telehealth and the difficulties of building and creating integrations for this kind of system at an unprecedented pace
  • A severe access gap for lower-income patients with limited or no internet access

Dr. Curtis Cole

Adrin Mammen of Montefiore Health — which predominantly serves residents of the Bronx, New York, and its northern suburbs — touched on the medical system’s unique population challenge, an 85% payer mix that’s mostly Medicaid and Medicare. As COVID-19 made landfall in New York, Montefiore witnessed a simultaneous surge of confirmed cases and a sharp decline in ambulatory care volume. A dangerous concoction of reluctance to seek on-site medical care and a lack of access to crucial information catalyzed Montefiore to stand up telehealth services as well as digital patient engagement tools, such as SMS outreach and emails, at incredible speed. In January 2020, Montefiore Health System had zero telehealth visits on record. In a span of 10 short days in early March, they were able to roll out a telemedicine platform and have since logged more than 250,000 (and counting) telehealth visits. Mammen ascribes this almost incomprehensible achievement to one overarching factor: a shared goal.

Adrin Mammen

All three panelists were unanimous in that telehealth is here to stay. However, they did have varying opinions on whether or not it will spell out cost reduction by shifting a proportion of care from brick and mortar sites versus increasing costs by acting as a gateway for new types of care.

Cutting the Red Tape

It would seem that the incredible rate in which the virus spread across the U.S. has only been matched by the number of healthcare regulations that have been lifted to fight it. The Trump administration recently announced an unprecedented expansion of telehealth services for senior citizens, and Congress waived restrictions for coronavirus screening. Although this decisive response has mostly been lauded as a positive step, it generated a host of new cybersecurity threats. Speaking on this matter, Michael Archuleta — who besides his role as CIO wears the hat of Security Officer at Mt. San Rafael Hospital — painted an alarming picture of how relaxing regulation opened a slew of backdoors for cybercriminals. Advocating for a holistic approach to health IT, Archuleta urged healthcare organizations to adopt more robust cybersecurity measures as part of their overall strategy.

Michael Archuleta

Echoing this sentiment, Dr. Cole acknowledged the vitality of cutting the red tape on draconian policies yet emphasized the risks of deregulation. He also made the case that telemedicine’s sudden boom should mostly be attributed to regulatory changes that allowed physicians to be adequately reimbursed as opposed to the loosening of privacy laws.

The Patient is my CEO

Mammen celebrates the remarkable recent show of confidence in patient adoption of digital health and shared that it has “whet the appetite of many stakeholders, both administrators, patients, and physicians alike” for further innovation.

Sharing that sentiment, Michael Archuleta is adamant about regularly reviewing the ROI (return on investment) Mt. San Rafael Hospital is garnering through various digital initiatives. In his view, “hospitals and clinics are digital companies that happen to deliver health care services” and should be measured as such. Archuleta believes that the best way to evaluate an organization’s success is by focusing the attention on how patients are utilizing and engaging with the tools they’re offered.

Michael Archuleta

Though there is certainly some cause for cautious optimism, Dr. Cole reminded us that more than 30 million Americans have lost their employer-based healthcare insurance and that the repercussions to the entire industry and the patients it serves are expected to be dire. Any plan of recuperation will have to take this stark issue into account.

Dr. Curtis Cole

AI — A Force Multiplier

Another fascinating discussion revolved around the role of AI in healthcare. From understanding the spread of the disease to aiding medical professionals in their fight to stymie it, AI is at the frontlines across all three medical centers. Although there was no question amongst the panelists that AI is an incredibly powerful tool, Dr. Cole stressed the fact that in many areas of healthcare there is still much room for improvement and that for now, it is no match for the tried and true randomized double-blind control trial for the sake of medical research. But when referring to conversational AI there was a clear consensus that this technology is already supercharging patient access and engagement. Jokingly calling AI a “force multiplier”, Mammen argued that it enables Montefiore’s employees to accomplish more while engaging and redirecting patients to the services they need. Evangelizing conversational AI as a democratizer of patient access, Archuleta expressed his concern for far-flung regions in rural America: “When we look at rural America, we look at these critical access facilities, you know, do they have the technology initiatives in place to continue? Do they have the bandwidth technology in place to basically produce connectivity for actual patients?” Mentioning Mount San Rafael’s deployment of Hyro’s COVID-19 Virtual Assistant, Archuleta continued to bolster his support for AI in the form of patient-facing conversational interfaces:

Your company, you do an amazing job in regards to an actual bot, you know, utilizing that bot technology with built-in artificial intelligence, basically looking at specific algorithms on what specific questions are being asked. How are we providing information to the public? How are we displaying what is happening with COVID? How can individuals obtain appointments? I mean, we’re really creating better-automated processes with the utilization of technology, which again, is an actual tool to improve outcomes.”

WATCH THE FULL WEBINAR for many more enlightening insights on digital transformation in the time of COVID-19, from some of the brightest minds in healthcare IT:

Read more on our Blog and follow us along on LinkedIn and Twitter to learn more about how conversational AI is solving seemingly impossible challenges every day.

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Aaron Bours
June 30, 2020
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