Covid-19 Increases the Speed of Healthcare Innovation

A panel of experts gathered in May to discuss changes in healthcare delivery as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and predict how the future of medicine will benefit from innovations we see today. A typically slow-to-change industry is adapting quickly to new circumstances, but revolutionary progress lies ahead.

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Image credit: Viome

 

There’s nothing like a world-wide pandemic to force people to shift gears. Covid-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, and nowhere is that more evident than in the healthcare arena. Emergency healthcare workers in the hardest-hit areas are working around the clock to care for patients infected by the virus. But Covid-19 has forced some changes in medical care that will likely benefit us even after the Coronavirus is under control.

“Covid-19 will change and transform the way that we deliver healthcare today and in the future,” says Dr. Shafi Ahmed, a surgeon at the Royal London Hospital. The pandemic, while anxiety-inducing, has brought forth new ideas and cooperative spirit among innovators. “We’re seeing diverse communities--entrepreneurs, innovators, big tech companies--all coming together to see how we can overcome some of the burdens of this disease,” Ahmed says. “This is an inflection point for humanity.”

Swift Changes for the Long Term

Some changes have been quick and prolific, as seen with technology manufacturers providing 3D printed medical device parts, personal protective gear, and equipment refurbishment. And IoT technology has been a vital aid in patient safety and infection control. But inside the healthcare industry, Covid-19 has brought some very positive changes. “We see the need for moving as fast as possible. Regulations have changed,” Ahmed says. “There’s less bureaucracy currently because of the drastic requirement for improvement to save lives.”

Testing kits are being rushed to market, vaccine development is on the fast track, and treatment options are being explored at a pace not seen in the typically very deliberate healthcare field. Relaxed regulations have led to quicker innovations—and some faltering—but the scale of Covid-19 demands urgent responses. Another benefit has been sharing information through crowdsourcing.

Even after the pandemic is under control, Ahmed predicts the medical innovation cycle will continue to move more rapidly, and hospitals will embrace change more quickly. Telemedicine is a prime example of this. While telemedicine technology has been available for more than a decade, it never gained much traction. It was mostly used for virtual consultations with other medical professionals and certainly not to its full capability, Ahmed says.

“Now we’re seeing an explosion,” he says. “My hospital in London is doing telephone triage and virtual consults because there is a huge benefit to doing so.” Some medical facilities are using telemedicine services 4000-5000 percent more than they were prior to Covid-19, Ahmed says. Doctors are inundated with work, and telemedicine is an effective alternative to in-person consultations. That will not change when hospitals slow down.  

The Inflection Trifecta

Covid-19 has been a tipping point, nudging a reluctant community to innovate in new ways. “I don’t think this is a pandemic defining the future, but something that is pushing the future in a new way,” says John Nosta, digital health pioneer and president of NostaLab, a healthcare innovation think tank. The shift is enabled by three ideas, he says: “The first is we have the technology now.” Even five or 10 years ago, we didn’t have the technology, data science, or the bandwidth to use technology as a partner in medicine.

Second, Nosta says, “We have the whole idea of governments, of regulatory bodies, acting in the favor of technology. They recognize that it’s important and they’re going to loosen restrictions—for example, the use of telemedicine across state lines.” Public health authorities encouraged hospitals and patients to use telemedicine services to reduce the spread of infection, validating its use. As a result, insurance companies began covering telemedicine appointments.

Third, he says, “is the moral and social imperative. This is really the final driver. It’s the right thing to do. Telemedicine was [once] an option. Today telemedicine has emerged as a clinical imperative.” 

Reset the Mindset

There is still a long way to go. The medical field is generally risk averse. “We don’t take chances,” Ahmed says. For example, surgical teaching traditionally reached only the small number of students in an operating room, which makes training tedious and inefficient. Though it took a long time, doctors now can use Zoom or Google Classroom and holograms to reach more students and provide more detail, Ahmed says.

That’s a good start but it’s not enough, Nosta says. Doctors need to be open to new ideas and find faster ways to test and incorporate them. Without a quicker rate of adoption, new technologies are no longer new when they are deployed. “People have to unlearn. It’s not only learning, they have to get out of this rut.”

Naveen Jain, CEO of Viome, agrees, noting that incremental shifts won’t lead to revolutionary changes in care models. Viome was founded with a focus on creating precision health models through the use of AI and cutting-edge technology. Specifically, Viome’s mission is to prevent or eliminate chronic disease through highly individualized health plans based on gut health. The company’s direct-to-consumer Gut Intelligence Test uses technology to study every single gene in the human body at a biochemical level, and then explores how food can be used as medicine to prevent and even reverse chronic diseases in the future. 

Jain urges medical professionals to seek new approaches to medical care and to incorporate technology into the process. “Innovation is moving so fast,” Jain says. “Artificial intelligence has to be part and parcel of how medicine is proactive. It is man and machine working together to provide information to the doctor.”

Despite the current pandemic concerns, Jain says, humans have taken control of infectious diseases. During previous pandemics, such as the plague and the Spanish Flu, 20-30 percent of the population would perish. That won’t be the case with Covid-19. “There is no doubt in my mind that within the next 12 to 18 months we will have a vaccine. We will have a cure, and this will be just a passing moment in the history of humanity,” Jain says.

  • Learn more about the science behind Viome.
  • Read about NostaLab’s vision for digital health and technology.