8 Insights from the CTA’s New Public Health Tech Task Force

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) recently hosted an informative webinar on leveraging technology to combat future pandemics like COVID-19. In case you missed it, we’ve recapped the top takeaways from this important discussion.

Beyond telehealth’s greater adoption rates, another hopeful trend has emerged in the healthcare space during the pandemic—increased collaborations among disparate entities working towards collective goals.

With synergy and innovation in mind, the CTA has brought together stakeholders from across industries to form a new working group, the Public Health Tech Initiative, to explore and make recommendations for how to address future public health emergencies with technology.

To introduce the initiative, members from the group’s steering committee hosted a public conversation on August 5th, highlighting key principles that digital health leaders, lobbyists, and the industry at large must embrace to prevent, combat, and recover from future public health emergencies like COVID-19. From infrastructure needs to policy changes, to the biggest opportunities for investment and technology development, the group’s insights and perspectives will be influential in driving the digital health industry forward and important for future-looking digital health company leaders to keep an eye on.

In case you missed it, we’ve compiled the most critical takeaways from the group’s first conversation on healthcare technology’s role within public health.

1. To solve big problems, we need stakeholders from diverse backgrounds and industries to collaborate and develop solutions.

    Problems as big as a pandemic require more than a siloed approach. Data-sharing, open communication, and collective action will all be critical to solving the unique challenges presented by a global pandemic.

    “Each of us is identifying issues and problems that need to be solved. If we are going to solve the whole problem of a pandemic, we need to tackle it from all different perspectives and get the 360-degree view of what’s happening. We can’t do it as healthcare providers by ourselves, policymakers by ourselves, or technologists by ourselves.”
    - Dr. David Rhew, Global Chief Medical Officer, Microsoft; Chair of CTA’s Health and Fitness Technology Division Board; Co-chair of CTA’s Public Health Tech Initiative
    “There is a societal cost to the pandemic. It’s not just healthcare that suffers, it’s the entire community. If you can better manage a pandemic through technology innovations, then you can get communities back to normal faster and decrease third-order effects like the economy, schools, etc. It’s incumbent upon us to find the best ways to do this to get the community back to normal as well.”
    - Dr. Alexander Garza, Chief Medical Officer, SSM Health; Task Force Commander for the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force; former Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration; Co-chair of CTA’s Public Health Tech Initiative

    2. We must invest in a timely, bi-directional, coordinated flow of data between public health, labs, and health systems.

      Solving how data flows will help us respond to future issues more effectively. Not only do public health officials need to know timely case counts for reducing transmission through the test-trace-isolate method, but clinicians must know what the public health systems are seeing in real-time.

      While most healthcare systems have moved beyond phone or fax case reporting, electronic case reports within the EHR are still a manual and burdensome task for clinicians. This data transfer must be structured, seamless, and automatic.

      3. Public health responses must be coordinated on a national and international level.

        If anything has become clear from the pandemic response in the United States, it’s that the current “fend for yourself” response has not been effective.

        To avoid fractured and piecemeal data exchange, we need a common framework for data organization, reporting, and sharing. To effectively deploy healthcare resources such as ventilators or PPE, we need a system for prioritization based on need.

        And to most effectively combat a global health crisis, this collaboration should happen on an international scale.

        4. COVID-19 has helped surface pre-existing racial disparities within healthcare, but digital health tools themselves can be biased.

          COVID-19 has helped surface pre-existing racial disparities within healthcare, but digital health tools themselves can be biased.

          The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color has been disturbing and unmistakable. In big cities, in particular, people of color are more likely to be condensed in tight housing communities and at increased risk of transmission as front-line workers.

          “Health inequalities didn’t start with COVID-19, it just exacerbated it to the point that people now understand how bad it is.”
          - Nicol Turner Lee, Ph.D., Director for the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings; CTA Public Health Tech Initiative steering committee member

          Digital health tools have the potential to provide more universal access to health education, prevention, and post-diagnostic care, however the general distrust of healthcare systems among people of color must be considered. Among those on the wrong side of the healthcare divide, technology can be viewed as surveillance and an invasion of privacy.

          As digital health technology evolves, we must do a better job of communicating meaningful use, and making health tools feel welcoming and inviting rather than simply another avenue for discrimination.

          “We need to have it (public health technology) ubiquitously deployed, but also equitably deployed, so that communities that are at the most risk of not being part of the larger data sets are going to get what they need to be helped along the way.”
          - Nicol Turner Lee

          5. We need population-based, public health education tools that can also provide individualized recommendations.

            Timely information delivery is critical in a pandemic response, otherwise people unknowingly do things that could increase the spread of infection.

            At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington state, Microsoft realized that a chatbot was the ideal technology to rapidly disseminate information about individual risk-level and triage people for telemedicine visits when necessary. The bot delivered screening questions based on the latest CDC protocols and permitted users to access telehealth visits directly within the platform.

            As exemplified by Microsoft’s chatbot, public health technologies should address the broader population and then be able to provide individualized recommendations for further action.

            6. To scale, healthcare must be virtualized for ambulatory care as well as inpatient care.

              Virtual services for outpatient care have been critical in scaling the COVID-19 response. But, in order to effectively meet the needs of overwhelmed hospital systems, we must be able to virtualize inpatient care as well, starting with the ICU.

              ICU doctors have been overwhelmed with ventilator patients during the pandemic, and residents with limited ventilator training have been asked to manage extremely complex cases. Sophisticated and experienced individuals must be able to provide the high level of care necessary to support these patients.

              In a virtual ICU, trained ventilator specialists could virtually supervise care in multiple settings and provide oversight for those less trained—facilitating specialty care on a much larger scale.

              7. Technologists and policymakers must commit to patient privacy.

                Although difficult, it is imperative to balance a commitment to privacy with access to and interoperability of health data. This balance must be championed by technologists, by incorporating privacy safeguards in their public health tools, and public policymakers, by ensuring that technology is transparent through privacy legislation. In order for patients and clinicians to continue to utilize digital health, they must feel completely sure that healthcare data is anonymous and privacy always paramount.

                “What’s going to make or break the future of digital health and digital health tools, will be the extent to which we build trust among doctors and patients within this space. If we’re asking people to go to an online portal rather than speak with their doctor in person, we need to make sure there is privacy baked into those models.”
                - Nicol Turner Lee

                8. Remote patient monitoring is key to the future of digital health.

                  Future-looking healthcare systems focus on moving patients out of hospitals and clinics and into the home, with the goal of identifying at-risk patients faster, preventing complications and hospitalizations, and saving room and resources for emergent needs.

                  While current devices such as blood pressure monitors, pulse oximeters, and heart rate monitors have facilitated the transition to at-home care, more sophisticated sensors and devices will only facilitate the ability of providers to monitor patients remotely.

                  We have surpassed a key milestone in terms of our ability to implement virtual health, but the possibilities to where we take this allow us to do so much more.”
                  - Dr. David Rhew

                  Watch the Public Health Tech Initiative webinar here. >

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