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Lessons learned from COVID-19 could help with next pandemic

In this Q&A, Penn State Health and Penn State College of Medicine CIO Cletis Earle talks COVID-19 misinformation, telehealth and next steps.

Cletis Earle began his new role as CIO of Penn State Health and Penn State College of Medicine in January. Little did he know that in a matter of weeks, he would be helping lead the health system and medical college through the COVID-19 pandemic.

While telehealth has been Earle's greatest ally through the pandemic, he's also focusing on tools such as contact tracing to track and mitigate exposure to the virus moving forward. Tools like these are critical as hospitals begin to think about resuming normal operations and reopening for routine inpatient care, he said.

But Earle is also thinking beyond this pandemic. Earlier this month, the Penn State College of Medicine partnered with the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) to distribute a survey that aims to measure the public's knowledge of COVID-19. As he describes in this Q&A, researchers are interested in finding communities and cultures most at risk for misinformation about the pandemic.

The survey data could help identify gaps in understanding or unreliable information sources that lead to potential risky behavior, giving healthcare leaders a chance to strategize how to better communicate with at-risk groups before the next pandemic occurs. The survey, which is anonymous and available in 20 languages, is open to anyone. The first round of data collection ends April 30.

Why is it important to identify groups at risk of being misinformed about COVID-19?

Cletis EarleCletis Earle

Cletis Earle: Over the last 10 years, we've had close to 13 pandemics and we have yet to learn anything from them. You would imagine if we had so many different scenarios, such as Ebola and SARS, why did we allow this to occur again. What didn't we learn from that? … This survey is going to allow us to understand, no matter where you are, what were the dynamics that were associated with why a certain culture or community was impacted more [than another]. How did you receive information? What did you think? Did you trust it? Did you understand what was going on? We will be able to extract information that will be generationally beneficial to everyone.

How will the information gathered in this survey help healthcare CIOs?

Earle: We'll be able to determine root causes, the social determinant components, of why communities have been impacted, and we'll be able to then target those. The goal is to fix it, to address it. If there is misinformation that's out there, how do we go and target that to ensure that that doesn't occur again? What kind of methods and tools could we put in place to prevent that so we could have better outcomes?

Along with the survey, what are your top priorities as a CIO right now?

Earle: Originally, the biggest priority was to turn our health system into a mobile workforce. We've set up over 7,000 people to work from home. But as that started to pan out and level out, one of the things that we're doing now is actively working to put a support system in to continue to support operations as things may ramp up or ramp down from an IT perspective. As new tests occur, as new potential solutions occur, many of those components have to be translated and interpreted into our electronic medical records systems so that we can support our operations effectively. What we're working on is a sustainability component, really trying to find out how do we continue to support the health system and all of our employees as this becomes a much longer-term program. We know for a fact that, since we don't have a vaccine, we're going to have to look for a proper vetting program for our own employees as they come back to work and as services start to ramp back up. We're looking at creating different systems, different methodologies, different solutions like contact tracing that will be able to help track our own employees to ensure that they remain healthy and safe throughout the extended component of this pandemic.

What tech have you found to be particularly helpful during the pandemic?

Earle: Something that's blown up across the globe is our virtual on-demand, or telehealth, functionalities. We've seen an exponential amount of utilization in that area. It's something we've been doing for years, but with COVID, it's allowed people to get the type of care they need remotely, and we see this activity ramping up extremely fast. We've onboarded over 1,200 providers for those services.

What are the next steps that you're focused on as CIO?

Earle: Some of the things we have to keep thinking about now is, OK, are we going into a recession? We're tightening our belts around the globe. Will patients start to come back? Will they start to trust the organization? Are they going to think that hospitals are petri dishes of the virus?

We do know we have to get back to normal, but the key here is how this new normal is going to look and how we use technology to accommodate.
Cletis EarleCIO, Penn State Health and Penn State College of Medicine

Our facilities are safe, and we are continuing to ensure they remain that way for our patients and staff. We're looking at how technology can help us when the doors open back up. And making sure, whether it's staffing size, whether it's scheduling to maintain social distancing, that we're doing all of these things now to find out what is this new normal going to look like until we get a vaccination or comprehensive antibody testing. We do know we have to get back to normal, but the key here is how this new normal is going to look and how we use technology to accommodate.

The other piece to think about -- as we now become very used to the tele-workforce -- is how many people are going to come back and how many people are going to stay in a telework environment.

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

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