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Healthcare tech shifts in lockstep with pandemic

Building out healthcare tech during a pandemic puts the focus on getting patients treated and discharged -- quickly.

Healthcare tech is playing a critical role in the battle against COVID-19, and healthcare CIOs are tasked with building out their technology stacks quickly to meet the needs within their healthcare systems.

At New York-based Northwell Health, Zenobia Brown, M.D., serves as medical director for Northwell Health Solutions, the care management organization responsible for implementing value-based care programs. During the pandemic, Brown has played an integral role in building out some of the existing healthcare tech Northwell uses, such as the Amwell telemedicine platform for patient treatment and Microsoft Teams for provider communication, while also keeping a close eye on how new services and analytics can help with tracking bed capacity and patient throughput.

In this Q&A, Brown discusses when a healthcare CIO should build out existing healthcare tech and when they should start looking for a new product to deploy.

How do you prioritize what areas to focus on when deploying or building out healthcare tech?

Zenobia Brown, M.D.Zenobia Brown

Zenobia Brown: The major factor that expedites what you're building in technology is: Does this affect the capacity in some way? Because that is the major challenge. Is there capacity in the hospitals, where are the beds, how do we solve this problem? We're always trying to solve around throughput because that is fundamental. The other fundamental problem is around clinical care. When both of those things align, they're at the top of the list.

How do you determine when to build out healthcare tech you have versus looking at something new?

Brown: That decision is a little bit more fluid. COVID-time is like dog years on steroids: A week feels like a year. [These days,] you are most likely to start with the technology you can deploy today, because so much is happening today. In three days, your needs are going to change. So, I would say that the priority is on what can we deploy today and oftentimes that's the platforms we have.

We already are using Amwell. If another technology came that was even a little superior to that, we're [still] starting [with Amwell]. But because the iteration cycle is so rapid, if it turned out that we couldn't achieve everything we needed to with those platforms, very quickly we would go with new technology and be doing that same thing with new technology.

How do you get provider buy-in for new or expanded digital health tools you roll out?

Brown: In general with COVID, it is a kitchen sink approach. It is throwing everything at it. It is using our distance learning platform that we've always used for providers when we oriented them and saying, 'Look, there's new modules on there,' and it's [also] weekly webcasts from our service line leaders.

The other part of this is, in a normal world, most providers feel like the way they do this is fine, so adoption becomes difficult in a normal circumstance. We're not having that adoption problem because it's all new. Everyone is ready to click on some different thing to get to the right list of how to take care of this patient in front of them right now.

Are you thinking long-term about tools you're deploying, what can stick around following COVID-19?

Brown: As we are getting pitched different things, there is always this idea of, 'Wow, this is really going to help us when COVID is over.' That is part of the calculus of figuring out what to invest a little bit of additional time in to deploy because there will be utility after the fact.

The other thing is there is a cycle to this thing. For example, we work with a couple of different groups around post-acute interfaces with [skilled nursing facilities] and rehabs. At the beginning of this, what we might have been the most interested in was new cases. One company versus another might have had a better software package on that. … Four weeks later, when everybody has it, what's more important is where are the open beds because now these [skilled nursing facilities] are getting full in a way that, four weeks ago, wasn't the problem.

What advice would you give healthcare CIOs building out and deploying technology during COVID-19?

Brown: It's the same advice I'd give in a non-pandemic framework: There has to be a direct impact of the technology you're deploying. Even now, there is so much technology being pitched where any ability to operationalize that information or that platform or that cool gadget is elusive. That could be interesting for the patient to have, but how is that going to impact the bed availability, how is that going to impact the spread of disease. I find, not even in a pandemic situation, there are many shiny toys out there. Making sure these things are fully operational [is critical] because there just isn't time to figure out the use case. It has to be that targeted in terms of what it's going to do for you, for the patients, for the community.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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