Put simply, says Dr. Angela Fusaro, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people interact with one another. Healthcare is no exception.
“From a provider perspective, I’ve seen doctors who didn’t previously offer telehealth services scrambling to implement the technology in some way,” says Fusaro, an emergency room doctor and CEO of Atlanta-based telehealth startup Physician360. “This trend has been especially true on the outpatient side, where doctors and patients may be consulting on more minor ailments or conditions, but I’m starting to see colleagues who work in inpatient departments also adopt telehealth as well.”
As she sees it, the rush toward telehealth makes sense: It’s an easy way for providers and patients to connect with one another without risking their health.
Patients definitely see the potential benefits of telemedicine, as usage has skyrocketed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Kaiser Health News, the famed Cleveland Clinic health system logged as many as 60,000 virtual visits in March. Previously it averaged around 3,400 such visits per month.
Changes in federal health care rules also fueled the surge: Medicare recently allowed all of its enrollees to use the service regardless of location or health needs, and also freed up doctors to practice telemedicine across state lines. Several states have also waived licensing requirements for doctors.
Although there had been some resistance to adopting telehealth services, the sudden and urgent need to find alternatives to visiting hospitals made that pivot critical, says Anju Mathew, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based cancer healthcare tech startup Oncolens.
“I think that’s something that the health system has always been struggling with as a whole,” says Mathew. “Both the providers — and many times, the patients — just didn’t want to shift to a new methodology, even though it’s costly for the entire health system.”
Dr. Ken Dixon, founder and CEO of SpeciCare, an Atlanta area startup specializing in testing and treating living cancer tissue outside the body, also sees the nascent popularity of telehealth as an “unanticipated positive consequence” of the pandemic.
“While there will always be a need for face to face interactions in specific situations, the use of virtual visits and telemedicine technology is now being validated daily across all areas of healthcare – from inside hospitals to private practices.”
When it comes to cancer care specifically, says Mathew, a lack of coordination between healthcare providers can lead to a lack of multidisciplinary care and breakdowns in communication. Oncolens’ Virtual Tumor Board actually helps doctors review patient data and formulate treatment plans while practicing social distancing.
“There’s a lot of care coordination that happens between different silos,” she says. “But now with everybody in their own different locations, it is very hard for that care coordination to take place. The tumor board [allows doctors to] discuss patient cases together. Traditionally, they were in a room together and they would review the data around the patient and the imaging and they would come up with a treatment plan. All of that came to a halt because no more than three to four can be in the room together.”
Oncolens made its tumor board coordination platform virtual in response to the pandemic, which has led to increased coordination of cancer treatment plans. Previously, says Mathew, cases would bounce from desk to desk for feedback, a process the platform shortened from two weeks to approximately two days.
“In general, you’ll find 50 people sometimes on the same call when they’re discussing these patients,” says Mathew. “Members of the care team can present their patient’s case, others will opine on it, and they can all decide on a plan of action. As a result, there’s still a very cohesive treatment plan coming into place for that patient.”
Although it helps maximize hospital space and keeps both immunocompromised patients and healthcare workers safe from exposure to coronavirus, the postponement of surgical procedures and treatments to fight cancer has become one of the greatest impacts of the pandemic, says Dixon.
“This great virus induced tragedy will, unfortunately, stand in the way of cancer care for a long time ahead.”
As cases and casualties from the pandemic continued to rise, many healthcare providers discovered issues gathering proper supplies, maintaining hospital capacity, and other problems.
Fusaro believes that COVID-19 also exposed major gaps in both healthcare delivery and access, and telehealth could provide the solution for both.
“When people think about accessing healthcare, often they think about going to the nearest hospital, which might be necessary in some situations, but not all. Some patients have minor conditions that can be addressed just as well via digital health solutions,” she says. “Consider the distance between healthcare facilities in rural areas or the high costs of in-person care. Telehealth can be both affordable and a way to reach patients who may not live near a healthcare facility.”
For Dixon, the issue is much more stark. “One of the immediate problems exposed by our collective inability to anticipate this tragedy is the failure to provide for adequate supplies for our healthcare workers on the frontlines. Some of our healthcare workers are paying for this with their lives,” he says. “This almost universal and global failure to prepare should condition us to question some of our other basic assumptions about medical care today.”
As states slowly begin to re-open, many in the healthcare space wonder how people will view telemedicine as they re-enter their “normal” lives. Mathew believes that although many patients will come to rely on telehealth for regular care post-COVID, the real change is the industry’s new-found willingness to provide it.
“More patients are going to go towards telehealth and stick to telehealth plan providers who will provide that as a service,” she says. “Physicians and providers will be looking for platforms like ours that will help them stay on top of these changes in a very quick way. Generally, healthcare has always been resistant to new technologies, but I think what we’re seeing [now] is a change in mentality.”
That change in mindset — for providers and patients alike — is long overdue, says Fusaro. In fact, patients can already obtain lab tests, clinical modules for common illnesses, and prescriptions via Physician360. The company also launched a new program to distribute COVID-19 testing kits nationwide and a service specializing in COVID-19 virtual consultations for patients.
“I have always believed that [telehealth] is critical to health care transformation and will play a major role in how we ultimately expand access, improve patient outcomes, and reduce overall costs,” she says. “I expect that our experience with COVID-19 will change patient and provider habits so that adoption of digital consultations becomes more widespread.”
TJ Muehleman, co-founder of Secure Data Kit, an Atlanta-based startup specializing in health data collection, management and analysis that can track the spread of COVID-19 throughout the U.S., hopes that an increase in data sharing and centralization will make healthcare more accessible once the COVID-19 pandemic passes.
“A lot of things that could be avoided with simple data sharing,” he says. “If you talk to most healthcare people, they’re throwing their hands up. They push data into a system, but they never get data out of the system. If you don’t have a good feedback loop, where people are pushing things in and getting things out, then you have a lopsided system.”
Dixon believes that some aspects of our new normal, like the advent of telemedicine, will make themselves known early on. Other outcomes, however, won’t be as easy to predict. When it comes to healthcare, Dixon considers a pair of questions that may help bring the picture of that new normal into sharper focus. “What do societies in a densely populated world do to protect from future threats to our common well-being? Also, does society focus on itself alone or forge a complementary worldview that values each individual life?”
Although Dixon readily admits healthcare’s new normal isn’t quite clear, he also admits that “it is necessary to think deeply about it.”