We are in the race of our lives right now. The race to get symptomatic people tested for coronavirus. The race to get reliable, current information to the public. The race to keep up with the growing number of people needing to be hospitalized. The race to find alternate medications that can minimize the number of deaths and optimize health outcomes. The race to develop a vaccine.
We will eventually win this race. But the experience of running it will forever change us. It will change how we approach the delivery of health care and how we work.
The COVID-19 global pandemic could very well be digital health’s watershed moment in ways that other aspects of health care were transformed after seminal events. For example, the discovery of penicillin’s impact on medicine, the Institute of Medicine report, To Err is Human, on patient safety and the mapping of the human genome’s impact on gene therapies.
We are still in the early days of this pandemic, but the power and promise of digital health is already coming to the forefront. Here are just some examples.
- Telemedicine. Video and telephonic visits are not new, but their adoption has been slower than one would have expected in our mobile society, mainly because of inconsistencies in technology capabilities and reimbursement. Now the conversation has turned from one of encouraging utilization to managing a surge of adoption. We will bridge the gaps that have been holding us back from optimizing use of telemedicine and both patients and physicians will have a standard new way of engaging outside the in-person visit.
- Remote monitoring. Tracking temperature, lipid levels, blood pressure and other health indicators are essential for people with chronic and complex conditions. Being able to track and report those measures in a reliable, real-time basis becomes even more critical for those vulnerable patients who become infected with coronavirus. As with telemedicine, this pandemic will require broader use of devices that will allow ill patients to remain safely in their homes without compromising the timeliness of their care.
- Population health surveillance and management. Tracking incidence of disease and capturing data about those who become ill is essential not only to “flatten the curve” but also to be able to deploy scarce resources where they are most needed on a continual basis.
- Artificial intelligence. Coronavirus brings a progression of symptoms and complications that can be managed with different interventions and therapies. While there is no “cure” for coronavirus, effective management of the respiratory, cardiovascular and other conditions that can arise is essential to survival for the most critically ill and to the long term health outcomes of all who contract the virus. AI is being used to help epidemiologists and clinicians chart the course of the virus, identify protocols that are working to greater success and even to identify new uses for drugs in these patients.
History shows us that public health’s watershed advances happen when we have a perfect storm of public policy and awareness coming together with medical practice and innovation. Behavior changes. Quality of life improves. Time will tell if COVID-19 will serve as that watershed moment for digital health, but if the early indicators are right, it is looking that way -- and that is something to be optimistic about.