Health & Fitness

The pandemic has revealed gaping issues with the U.S. healthcare system

the-pandemic-has-revealed-gaping-issues-with-the-u-s-healthcare-system

EMT workers put a patient in an ambulance in front of the mountain. Sinai Morningside Hospital on May 18, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, killing over 320,000 and infecting nearly 4.9 million people.

John Lamparski

The coronavirus pandemic fundamentally changed the U.S. healthcare system, exposing some of its gaping problems.

But it has also changed things for the better, according to a panel of experts speaking at CNBC's annual Technology Executive Council Summit Thursday. One of the biggest changes was the introduction of telemedicine. As patients seek alternatives to personal care, millions are now choosing to take a virtual video visit or chat with a doctor.

At the start of the pandemic, Darren Dworkin, senior vice president of corporate information services and CIO for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said visits had increased ten-fold from the high single-digit thousands per month. In the past few months, he said, his healthcare system has been "drifting back to being personal." At this point it remains to be determined how telemedicine will be used in the years following the pandemic.

Carissa Rollins, UnitedHealthcare's Chief Information Officer, has followed the trend. United, the largest health insurer in the United States, has seen dramatic change. There have been 13 million telehealth visits since January, which is 1.3 visits per member. Behavioral health has seen a particularly sharp increase. And women, she said, are driving adoption because they are often the "primary health care decision makers" for their families.

What is ahead of us?

None of the panellists had a clear sense of when life would return to normal, which means that our healthcare, school, and work experiences would shift towards personal rather than virtual experiences. However, they shared some concerns about ongoing concerns about finding care in the hospital or clinic.

"People are delaying care and we are concerned," said Rollins.

"We're seeing the biggest drop in screening and it's hard to predict what will happen," added Dworkin, citing the fact that fewer patients are receiving preventive care.

Stephen Boyer, the founder and chief technology officer of BigSight, a cybersecurity company, agreed that this is difficult to predict. "We are preparing for a marathon," he said.

In the meantime, the panelists agreed that there is much more we could do to bring the virus under control. Contact tracing, which involves trained public health personnel contacting people who test positive for the virus and trying to identify those who may be exposed to the virus, has struggled in the US compared to other countries . And that's despite the new technology tools designed to make it easier: With the help of smartphones, public health organizations can more precisely determine who may have been exposed to the virus.

Dworkin described the lack of contact tracing in the various states as less of a technological problem than a lack of coordination. "The reality is that pre-pandemic health care in the United States was very fragmented," he explained. "We discover the disadvantages … and that falls between the cracks."

The Care19 mobile app, which the North Dakota and South Dakota governors downloaded to aid in contact tracing during the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, will appear on a phone on April 24, 2020.

Dave Paresh | Reuters

Rollins agreed that this was more of a "policy" issue than a technology issue. As she pointed out, there are huge differences across the country in how seriously people take the virus – including whether they are willing to contact tracers or download apps to monitor their proximity to others.

The lack of available public health resources is a major issue, the panelists agreed, and more work needs to be done to improve both communication and coordination.

"People forget how much of public health is broken down by local regions that have not been naturally coordinated to collaborate or funded for policy development," Dworkin said.

When asked about the big change they would like to see at this stage of the pandemic, each panelist responded differently. Rollins saw the opportunity to use data and artificial intelligence to better understand the factors that contribute to a Covid-19 diagnosis.

In Boyer's view, cybersecurity is an overlooked but vital area. "We saw the first ransomware-related death in Germany last week," he said. "Hackers are looking for hospitals."

There is a great opportunity for Dworkin to expand health care to communities across the country, especially regions that have historically not had access to health professionals. "The reality is that we don't have universal access to health care – and you are really starting to see the effects of that."

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Katherine Clark