Jun 28 2021

#ATA2021: What to Expect as Digital Transformations Accelerate in Healthcare

From interoperability to consumer expectations, experts at the annual conference share their outlook on the virtual care landscape.

Virtual care deployment may have exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there may come a time when telehealth emerges as an expected service across U.S. healthcare systems.

Perhaps in the next five to 10 years, telehealth won’t just be a crisis-response mode of care. “It’s just healthcare. It’s just a part of a spectrum that all of us live on, and that spectrum sort of encompasses the various ways that we would engage with healthcare providers or wellness providers,” said Micky Tripathi, national coordinator for health IT at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during the American Telemedicine Association’s 2021 virtual conference.

Some 81 percent of healthcare executives surveyed for the global Accenture Digital Health Technology Vision 2021 said their organization’s pace of digital transformation is accelerating. And 87 percent of healthcare executives say their organization’s business and technology strategies are becoming more interconnected.

Experts at the monthlong ATA2021 conference shared their perspectives on the ongoing digital transformations in healthcare, the lessons that can be learned from other industries and the opportunities that accompany virtual-first strategies.

Bringing the Care Continuum Home

“I think the whole concept of location-independent care is just huge,” said Tripathi, who spoke at the “Partnering Interoperability and Telehealth to Transform 21st Century Patient-Centered Care” fireside chat.

Though people often think of telehealth solely as virtual visits, Tripathi noted the vast care options available, from streaming technologies that offer real-time monitoring to smartphone apps.

He stressed the importance of nationwide interoperability and asked anyone interested in sharing their goals on the matter to submit them to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology’s online crowdsourcing form at Health Interoperability Outcomes 2030. The deadline for submissions is July 30.

MORE FROM ATA2021: Dr. Joseph Kvedar explains what’s next for telehealth.

The ability to exchange and make sense of healthcare data is crucial as the industry shifts from a fee-for-service model to value-based care. In a session called “MeCare: The Engaged Consumer Changing the Journey of Health and Care,” panelists discussed how the home becoming the “epicenter of life operations” during the pandemic has made a profound impact on consumers.

Health economist and advisor Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, who founded the blog Health Populi, explained how the personalized care delivery of “MeCare” offers an omnichannel perspective. Heart health is especially amenable to this model, as it involves a holistic continuum of care, including diet and exercise, mental health and chronic disease management.

Dr. Manish Wadhwa, chief medical officer of the remote cardiac monitoring diagnostic services company BioTelemetry, said cardiology faces a lot of challenges. Although there are many patients because of the prevalence of heart disease in the U.S., the number of specialists could decrease as cardiologists get older and retire. The data entry burden of electronic medical records can also eat away at the time physicians can spend with patients.

But a “MeCare” approach to the cardiac care continuum can shift care from the doctor’s office to a patient’s home, with remote monitoring opportunities.

People want more care at home, Sarasohn-Kahn said, and the pandemic has primed consumers, via Zoom and other virtual encounters, to take on personalized, digital health. People are already embracing the idea of the home as a health hub, she said.

Multidisciplinary Care for Aging Patients

Making care available to patients regardless of location can also help profoundly evolve healthcare for older adults. Zahra Shariff, senior medical director of post-acute virtual care network Third Eye Health, stressed how important it is to move “the expertise to the patient versus having the patient go to the hospital, to the clinic.”

Jarrett Bauer, CEO and co-founder of virtual care provider Health Recovery Solutions, said he entered the aging space when his grandmother was readmitted to the hospital with heart failure, and he thought there was an opportunity for change when he looked into the reasons for readmission.

Virtual care solutions don’t need to be thought of as discrete, disconnected modes of care. Remote patient monitoring and video visits can absolutely work together, Bauer said.

MORE FROM ATA2021: Why telehealth is key to access for every patient population.

“I think things are blending. And I think the big thing to have in the back of your mind is not to categorize things as much as ‘which category is this?’ but ‘what is best for the patient, and what is best for the nurse?’ And I think the reality is we need a whole bunch of tools to really help nurses and physicians to be operating at the top of their licenses,” Bauer said.

Getting older adults and people with serious comorbidities the care they need has always been a challenge, and the pandemic only highlighted how unnecessary it is to expose people to risk by filling up an emergency room or a clinic.

Instead, the multidisciplinary care that happens within hospitals can and should happen within people’s homes or long-term care facilities.

“We can be there with them in their own space, and that’s what we have to work toward,” Shariff said. “Wherever it is, we need to be able to go to them.”

Building Specialty Care from the Ground Up

Breaking through those walls are virtual-first health companies that shared their experiences during a panel discussion called “On the Road to Hybrid: Opportunities and Challenges for Virtual First Organizations.” More resources on such strategies can be found at impact.dimesociety.org.

Virtual mental health platform Ginger and gastrointestinal specialty care provider Oshi Health discussed how they made the move from data analytics to providing care.

“We knew that coupling data with high-quality care, hiring the best providers — we are live in all states, we are able to provide international services as well. That was really going to be the most effective way to really change the system,” said Ginger’s chief clinical officer, Dana Udall.

Sameer Berry
GI is a highly procedural field. Two or three years ago, people had never thought that you’d be able to do this type of care virtually. What we found out ... is that this is something that is very, very doable through a virtual-first approach.”

Sameer Berry Chief Medical Officer, Oshi Health

Oshi Health’s hybrid approach also allows patients to quickly receive much-needed specialty care.

“What’s really exciting about what we’re seeing now in virtual-first organizations is the entrance of the type of care that traditionally would never be thought possible via virtual care. GI is a highly procedural field,” said Sameer Berry, chief medical officer of Oshi Health. “Two or three years ago, people had never thought that you’d be able to do this type of care virtually. What we found out, not only through the COVID-19 pandemic but through our own research at Oshi, is that this is something that is very, very doable through a virtual-first approach.”

Berry added that it’s not about layering new technologies on top of traditional care — a virtual-first approach builds care from the ground up. With Oshi Health, for example, every patient works with an integrated care team, including a gastroenterologist, a registered dietitian and a health coach, with everyone working at the top of their licenses.

An Incremental Strategy and Patient Awareness Are Crucial

That sort of integrated, holistic approach to care will guide the healthcare industry forward. As John Glaser, executive-in-residence at Harvard Medical School Executive Education, shared during the “Digital Transformation: What Can We Learn from Other Industries?” talk, new technologies, increased investment, the rise of consumerism and the shift to value-based care have primed digital transformation in healthcare.

But a digital strategy is a means, not the end, Glaser said, and it can only help if it contributes to a health system’s business goals. A digital pivot also can’t save an organization from a flawed strategy.

Transformation never stops; for example, Amazon has continued its digital transformation since it launched in the 1990s, with Prime member benefits, the acquisition of Whole Foods and now a move into the healthcare space.

But those changes over decades highlight the importance of taking measured, incremental steps: “If you leap too far, you discover lots of things break or don’t work so very well,” Glaser said. “Colleagues have told me that this is ‘death by ants’ — no single bite will kill you, but 1,000 will, because 1,000 things break if you leap too far.”

Though there’s still uncertainty about how much digital transformation the healthcare industry will undergo, Kristi Henderson, senior vice president of the Center for Digital Health at Optum Health, said that an overreaction to the “snap back” of in-person visits is unnecessary.

MORE FROM ATA2021: The long-term outlook on virtual care for providers and employers.

Some 20 to 30 percent of providers will use digital health in their practices across the country, she said during “The Future of Telehealth: Reinventing the Model of Care” fireside chat.

But education about virtual care is still important, and Henderson said the need to give context and share data-driven stories is crucial.

“We have to bring awareness to the possibilities because there’s a lot of myths and assumptions that are just really, frankly, not true,” Henderson said. “And we need to demystify some of this, simplify it and show people how it has a role and a place to provide good quality care.”

Keep this page bookmarked for articles from the event, which runs through June 29. Follow us on Twitter @HealthTechMag as well as the official organization account, @AmericanTelemed, and join the conversation using the hashtags #ATA2021 and #GoTelehealth.

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