First things first: For many of us, we may be too close to the current health pandemic and financial crisis to see beyond the fear and panic gripping the world. And it is understandable considering the millions of livelihoods at stake, the misleading information and the real threat that the coronavirus poses to the elderly and compromised. From where I sit in New York City, the gravity of these compounded circumstances can be overwhelming when there appears to be no solution in sight. But I have always been an optimist, at least a practical one, and believe there is a silver lining to everything—even this. I’ll explain.
It’s not breaking news that the U.S. healthcare system has been in crisis for quite some time, with rising healthcare costs, increasing wait times to see specialists and skyrocketing premiums. While telemedicine and telehealth have inarguably filled a critical gap to a certain extent, the adoption of connected healthcare has up until now been slower than expected, particularly among smaller medical practices that did not have the resources of large hospitals and healthcare systems. In a 2016 survey conducted by the American Medical Association, for example, only 15.4 percent of physicians used telemedicine for patient interactions and only 11.2 percent worked in practices that used telemedicine for interactions between physicians and healthcare professionals. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the financial burden of implementing it was the most significant barrier.
Now, the pandemic has forced the government and healthcare systems to extend telemedicine across a wide swath to reduce emergency room visits and the spread of the virus to healthcare providers. An emergency room doctor and chief medical information officer at NYU Langone Health was quoted in a March 19 report from NBC News stating: “This is new for everybody. We are in a completely different place than we were a month ago around telemedicine.” Earlier this week, the doctor said visits were about 700 a day compared to 30 days prior, where the numbers were closer to 35.
To be sure, startups and pioneering companies never wavered in the exploration and development of new ways to give healthcare a much broader reach. And finally, their time has come—without a minute to lose. From the patient-physician experience to consumer devices that help people monitor and manage their health and wellbeing anywhere at any time, companies unencumbered by bureaucracy have emerged as innovators filling a vital need.
Aside from personalization, which is the new frontier for products, medicine and everything in between, there is a real crisis at hand which calls for social distancing to protect the most vulnerable. In the state of California, the governor issued a stay-at-home order effective immediately in order to stop the spread of this killer virus. Thankfully, connected healthcare is available for people experiencing not only flu symptoms but also health issues that require immediate attention—all available from a safe distance.
Just days ago the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) broadened access to Medicare telehealth services so that beneficiaries—particularly those at high-risk of complications from COVID-19— can receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility. Under new flexibility granted by the supplemental spending bill, private payers are already making changes that could be helpful. In addition, some insurers are encouraging patients to use telehealth services via third-party vendors and participating network clinicians to reduce the risk of exposure and contact.
Here’s the reality: We have had healthcare threats to humanity in epic proportions before this. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that on average 12,000-61,000 people in America alone have died from the seasonal flu each year since 2010, with up to 45 million infections. In 2019, the American Cancer Society estimated there will be 1.8 million new cancer cases diagnosed and 606,520 cancer deaths in the United States. And finally, the World Health Organization reports that 1.24 million people die from road accidents every year. Yet, we keep on living because we must. The only alternative is to lock ourselves away in fear.
Technology may be that silver lining, guiding us through this pandemic, with connected healthcare leading to a new approach to wellness and the control of future pandemics—one that will be available to all in the most challenging circumstances. Imagine when the average citizen can access a smart thermometer to record body temperature, a smart heart monitor to record pulse, blood pressure and heart rate, a diagnostic device that may indicate the onset of a stroke, and have the information monitored in real-time by a healthcare provider who can take preventive action that could save a life. Let’s hope COVID-19 will be the catalyst in making this a reality.
—– Written by Greg Kahn.