Though the U.S. healthcare system is straining under the burden of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been acceleration in one area of the industry: innovation and IT efforts. Organizations are crediting technology with helping them stay connected with their patients and advancing their population health efforts, despite the growing healthcare access challenges brought on by the pandemic.
At Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, the Covid-19 pandemic has, in many ways, been a transformative event, Dr. Phil Oravetz, chief population health officer of the system, said in a panel at MedCity INVEST Population Health.
“Covid has really unleashed a wave of innovation at Ochsner,” he said. “I would describe, in the area of telehealth, we’ve moved forward by three years in the matter of three weeks…Covid has been a catalyst that will change the face of healthcare at Ochsner pretty much forever.”
Prior to the pandemic, telehealth was relegated to communication between hospitals and clinicians at Ochsner. The health system was right on the cusp of making the service direct-to-patient and bringing it into the ambulatory space, and the Covid-19 crisis became precisely the push they needed, Oravetz said. In 2019, the system completed 3,000 ambulatory telehealth visits. That figure has jumped to over 300,000 in 2020 so far.
According to Dr. Steven Peskin, executive medical director for population health and transformation at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the rapid adoption of telehealth and other technologies was the result of a loosening of federal and state restrictions. But it also became a means of survival for most clinical organizations, he said.
The high demand from patients for telehealth services and the consequent rapid deployment at health systems speaks to the lasting nature the service, which will likely continue to see high use beyond the pandemic, Oravetz added.
Health systems have also used technology to adapt their social determinants of health efforts to the rapidly changing healthcare landscape.
For example, Philadelphia-based Penn Medicine’s Center for Community Health Workers uses an app to provide real-time patient updates to community health workers who are on call, Scott Tornek, chief strategy officer of the center, said. The community health workers would then visit eligible patients at the clinic or the hospital and begin working with them to set health-related goals and identify potential hurdles to care.
But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it became impossible for community health workers to visit patients. The center has since successfully pivoted to batch texting as a way to connect patients and community health workers.
“We all know Covid really shone a light on how the most vulnerable communities are getting hit hardest,” Tornek said. “And it’s something that wasn’t surprising to us, but it is just tragic.”
Several technology companies have entered the social determinants of health space aiming to create the infrastructure needed to connect and encourage seamless coordination between clinicians and community-based organizations. This is the goal of Unite Us, which offers a platform enabling clinicians to incorporate social determinants of health data into clinical care and provide patients with electronic referrals to social services. Clinicians can track the referrals to make sure their patients are getting help.
The need for this type of technology infrastructure has become even more pronounced amid a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting underserved communities, which typically experience high rates of poverty, food insecurity and other social factors affecting health.
“Usually, [community-based organizations] are understaffed, underfunded and overworked,” Taylor Justice, co-founder and president of Unite Us, said during the panel. “Especially during a pandemic. So, to better serve the patient or the end beneficiary of services, you need to have a very optimized network that once you plug them into it, it’s going to work for them, and also deliver results.”
Photo: metamorworks, Getty Images