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Pandemic sets new course for virtual care, AI in healthcare

Kaiser Permanente leaders and David Rhew, Microsoft's vice president of healthcare, discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtual care and AI.

Healthcare leaders are transforming the way their organizations deliver care during the COVID-19 pandemic and opening the door to more permanent changes in care delivery moving forward.

At Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest nonprofit healthcare systems in the United States, the shift to virtual care was significant -- as was increased demand for digital front-door tools such as patient-facing chatbots to direct patients to the right care. Though more changes are occurring as the initial wave of virtual visits slows and healthcare organizations reopen for in-person care, the shift will have longstanding effects. Organizations will work to balance continuing virtual care services and creating a digital front door strategy, while also bringing patients back for in-person elective procedures and non-COVID-19 care.

Prat VemanaPrat Vemana

Leaders within the Kaiser Permanente organization, including chief digital officer Prat Vemana and Bill Marsh, M.D., vice president of care delivery IT and products, sales and marketing for The Permanente Federation at Kaiser Permanente, discussed during a recent webcast series how COVID-19 has affected the organization's use of health IT both now and in the future.

Virtual care

As with many healthcare organizations across the nation, Kaiser Permanente saw a major jump in virtual care use during the height of the pandemic.

Bill MarshBill Marsh

Marsh said while the organization conducted maybe 15% of its patient visits virtually before COVID-19, that number skyrocketed to 80% as the pandemic hit full stride in March, April and May. Now, as Kaiser Permanente reopens for in-person care and elective procedures, Marsh said the virtual care use percentage has dropped to around 60%.

Moving forward, organizations will ride a transitional wave until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, Marsh said. Though virtual care use has declined since the initial peak of the pandemic, cases are resurging in certain areas, which will once again push the need for virtual healthcare services.

Indeed, webinar participant David Rhew, M.D., global chief medical officer and vice president of healthcare at Microsoft, said it could be a while before patients feel comfortable coming into a clinic for care, which will extend the use of virtual care beyond the current COVID-19 crisis. Webinar participant Veenu Aulakh, president and CEO of the Center for Care Innovations, said the massive shift to virtual care is creating more access points to care, which will drive the need for continued virtual care services post-pandemic. The Center for Care Innovations focuses on connecting patients in underserved communities to healthcare services.

Ultimately, it will be up to healthcare leaders to find a balance between continuing virtual care services and offering in-person services, and a critical underpinning to virtual care's success is ease of use. Technology matters, Marsh said, because if it's easy to use, both providers and patients will be more likely to adopt virtual healthcare delivery methods.

"Let's imagine we have a vaccine in the future and we're past this roller coaster wave," Marsh said. "Where we will end up is a much higher use of virtual care, telehealth, in the future state than what we experienced pre-COVID."

Artificial intelligence

Rhew said the Microsoft team learned at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis that triaging patients through the help of an automated chatbot went a long way in creating a more efficient process for getting patients the treatment they needed.

Anything we can do, whether it's via AI or other support, to lighten the administrative burden on physicians will really help.
Bill Marsh, M.D. Vice president of care delivery IT, Kaiser Permanente

As calls flooded into healthcare systems, it was important to set up a separate triage process for COVID-19-related questions, versus traditional urgent care or chronic disease questions, Rhew said. Though chatbots aren't a new concept in healthcare, they've played a particularly helpful role during the pandemic by fielding patient calls and getting patients to the right place to be treated, he said.

Kaiser Permanente's Vemana said using artificial intelligence-based tools to help patients across the full spectrum of the healthcare visit -- from preparing for the visit to a post-visit follow-up -- is something healthcare will be embracing rapidly moving forward. Marsh echoed the sentiment.

"Anything we can do, whether it's via AI or other support, to lighten the administrative burden on physicians will really help," he said.

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