COVID Unites Us All: Helpful Insights from International Digital Health Leaders
by Olivia R. Weidner, DHIT Global Intern
On Friday April 3, the Digital Health Institute for Transformation (DHIT) hosted the first installment of its digital web series. The DHIT Frequency Webinar Series, which will take place biweekly, is a way to keep our community connected while many work from home. Each segment will be hosted by DHIT’s President, Michael Levy, and will spotlight distinguished guests from across the ecosystem to discuss the state of digital health in the time of COVID-19.
Amidst widespread fear and uncertainty, DHIT explored the role of digital health in the global response to COVID-19, gaining insight into the ways this crisis has catalyzed the usage and acceptance of telehealth and other digital health technologies. Speakers included:
- Sujoy Kar, Chief Medical Information Officer and Vice President at Apollo Hospitals in India
- Angela Yochem, Executive Vice President and Chief Digital and Technology Officer of Novant Health in the United States
- Kathy Malas, Associate CEO of Innovation and AI at the University of Montreal Health Centre in Canada (absent due to a last-minute hospital emergency)
Kar and Yochem started off by providing our viewers with an overview of the current situation within their respective communities. Kar shared that over 3,000 people are currently infected in India, and pointed out the highly susceptible population there; India is considered the “capital” of communicable diseases. He described the country as “geared up” in preparation for handling the fallout of the pandemic. Still, hospital systems and governmental bodies were forced to make some drastic changes in light of recent events. On March 25, 2020, Indian telemedicine guidelines were finally approved, after some 20 years of bureaucratic obstacles. The risks associated with social contact meant that healthcare providers needed a way to effectively manage their patients virtually, although the benefits of the telemedicine breakthrough seem to stretch beyond the immediate goal of preventing viral spread. Physicians and other care providers now have a way of connecting with people in the most remote areas. Kar shared the story of one woman in her late 60s: “she was experiencing eye pain following a recent surgery. After being connected with a telemedicine unit, she received an influx of calls from providers across the country, within a span of 15 minutes, all asking how they could help.” Essentially, this advance in digital healthcare delivery has created a service-oriented system that enables connection across remote communities.
Angela Yochem shared similarly optimistic reflections about the impact of digital healthcare on patient management here in the US. Yochem classifies recent projects at Novant into two broad categories: (1) preparing for a large influx of COVID-19 patients, and (2) keeping communities healthy. The former has been carried out with the use of advanced modeling, which projects virus spread across the regions Novant serves. Preventative measures include the cancellation of elective surgeries, pop-up screening centers, and the use of digital screening tools. Moreover, Yochem reports that Novant has conducted over 50,000 virtual visits in a span of weeks, which indicates a “tremendous appetite” for virtual healthcare, from both patients and providers. Another positive point is the growing reimbursement of virtual visits by insurance providers, which ensures access to care by mitigating potential financial burden. Ultimately, telemedicine has been instrumental in limiting interpersonal exposure in both India as well as the US.
“We should be thinking about the pandemic from a systems thinking perspective. Thus far, we have been defensive against the virus; we need to be more proactive,” says Kar.
Moving forward, both Kar and Yochem have ideas about the way that healthcare delivery and infectious disease management might change. Kar, whose specialty is infectious disease, suggests that the world would benefit from the introduction of a universal treatment protocol for COVID-19. According to Kar, certain facets of virus management, including early warning signs, symptom evolution, and when to test, have not been solidified or agreed upon. “We should be thinking about the pandemic from a systems thinking perspective. Thus far, we have been defensive against the virus; we need to be more proactive,” says Kar. Despite this lack of standardization, however, Kar hopes to see a more structured program in the near future. He concludes his reflection by postulating that telemedicine may play a vital role in “lending a supporting hand” to those combatting the fallout of the virus. With a system of digital health delivery in place, both physical and mental health care could benefit, in the near future and beyond.
Yochem predicts that we will see increased usage and acceptance of telemedicine following this crisis. She draws a helpful comparison to remote work to help viewers conceptualize this idea: “the closest parallel is corporations finding ways for people to work from home. Previously, a lot of people felt that they needed to be in the office, but ultimately realized that they could be productive at home. Remote work takes away the things that take time out of one’s day, like commuting. Under today’s conditions, new habits will be formed and a new level of comfort will be had.” After using technology for healthcare needs, individuals may increasingly view in-person visits to the physician’s office as a chore.According to Yochem, this may be the start of a “new normal,” during which people grow to accept (and even expect) access to digital care.
The pandemic has been a source of worry and apprehension, yet panelists indicated this past Friday that there is always room for optimism. As healthcare systems, care providers, and individuals adapt to the uncertainty of today’s world, the possibility exists that we will learn something new along the way.
DHIT thanks its guests for serving on the panel, and everyone who tuned in! If you were not able to catch last week’s webinar, check out DHIT’s YouTube channel to see what you missed. DHIT would also like to give a special shout out to our sponsors: Bluedoor Group, Tanjo, and Smashing Boxes, for making this webinar possible.
Mark your calendar for Friday, April 17th for the second installment of the DHIT Frequency Webinar Series. Until then, stay safe, everyone!
To view the recording, visit DHIT’s Youtube Channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtl1YjFB5cDVA0Ft3OePsvg
The Digital Health Institute for Transformation (DHIT) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit education and research institute supporting communities through the process of digital health transformation. We collaborate with leading academic institutions, associations, and industry to cultivate talent and ecosystems with our immersive learning platform, harnessing real-world experiences that drive the adoption of next generation skills, emerging technologies, and mindsets needed to foster the digital health leaders and innovators of the future, today. For more information, visit dhitglobal.org.
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