By STEFAN MODRICH
What is the future of healthcare, and what role does innovation and technology play in improving the quality of care? How can healthcare experts tackle the evolving challenges related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
A Zoom panel of local doctors gathered Thursday in a Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce virtual event to discuss questions like these as well as the growth of healthcare startups and Texas’ significance to the global healthcare industry.
“The pandemic has forced us all to reimagine the way we carry out our lives,” said Dr. Ashvin Dewan of Houston Methodist Sugar Land. “That includes the delivery of healthcare. For one, it’s definitely, I think, has accelerated innovation. Previously, hospitals and healthcare administrations would need months to review and implement new technologies. Well now, with the impetus of a pandemic, that has kind of changed the mindset and the approach to solving acute problems that the pandemic has presented to our medical community and systems. If there’s a silver lining, I think it’s that it kind of highlighted the value of fast change and shown us that we won’t bring the system tumbling down if we do rapid changes.”
Dewan is a practicing orthopedic surgeon at Houston Methodist Sugar Land and co-founder of CaseCTRL- a software platform for coordinating surgery.
Joining Dewan on the panel was Dr. Swarna Balasubramaniam, Dr. Lance Black and Dr. Erin Flores, innovation pipeline manager at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The discussion was moderated by Mike Dotson of AccessHealth.
Balasubramaniam spent 20 years as a surgeon in Sugar Land. She is the founder of Noleus Technologies, a Houston-based medical device company focused on developing and commercializing technologies intended to accelerate recovery and to improve outcomes after surgery.
Balasubramaniam said some of the drivers of healthcare innovation aren’t easily visible to the public. As an example, she referenced Call 9, a company that brought virtual doctor visits to nursing homes to reduce costs and logistics challenges that she said were cumbersome even before the pandemic.
“There are very many interesting things going on in the digital space that we don’t even see,” Balasubramaniam said. “Nursing home patients are some of the highest utilizers of emergency rooms. And they get constantly shipped out because there’s no real medical care at nursing homes, and so whenever a patient has a problem they immediately ship them from the nursing home. There’s a ton of ambulance charges, and ER utilization.”
Call 9 used specialists to offer patients a virtual diagnosis, but she said the reason the company initially struggled was it couldn’t get insurance companies to pay for their services.
“Thanks to the pandemic, insurance companies are seeing the value of virtual visits,” Balasubramaniam said. “And (Call 9) has been reborn. Basically, what they’re able to do is keep the frailest patients who are most likely to catch COVID-19 and keep them in the nursing home and provide care there instead of exposing them to so many things.”
Black is the associate director of the Texas Medical Center’s TMCx and Biodesign programs. He is an Air Force veteran and deployed twice overseas to Kyrgyzstan and Okinawa, Japan.
Black said what he felt the pandemic revealed to him and his colleagues was that while telehealth was not new, medical startups are crucial to pivoting quickly with innovations that larger legacy healthcare providers cannot.
“I work with entrepreneurs every single day, and I kind of tease them,” Black said. “I say, ‘You’re kind of like a prophet, you’re trying to tell everybody where the future is going, and yet they continue to reject you.’ You’re trying to have them share your vision of the future. With that comes a lot of conversations and telling your story over and over and trying to understand what’s going to incentivize people to make that move, whether it’s a payer, a stakeholder within a hospital, or even physician adoption.”
Flores said artificial intelligence is another tool on the forefront of healthcare innovation, which is aimed at anticipating a patient’s needs before they realize what their needs are. She added that such technology could help give advance notice if a patient needed to stop or start a certain medication before a surgery, for example.
She said MD Anderson’s foremost strength is its research team, and that in the future, the cancer center’s new algorithm could pair data from animal models and human-based biopsies to provide insights in real time.
“We have a unique opportunity because we have such a great amount of data on our patients,” Flores said. “The reality is we don’t have a really strong infrastructure to do that in real time. But we have actually just implemented something that’s very robust and very powerful that will start to bring together these two worlds in patient care. Our physicians and our researchers are going to be able to synthesize outcomes and ask questions in new ways that would not have been possible before. That will help us accelerate new discoveries for our patients hopefully in the very near future and over the long term.”