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The COVID pandemic has taken its hit on conferences, but HLTH leveraged the situation to launch a seamless virtual conference which was fully relevant in today’s environment. Here are four major themes we took away from the week.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 was top of mind for almost every major topic. We heard from government leaders on their response to the pandemic and from industry stakeholders on their role in filling gaps in traditional healthcare using digital solutions.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn reigned in expectations on the FDA’s role in the response, asserting that they are not responsible for allocating resources or backing certain vaccines, but rather are responsible for providing technical support in evaluating evidence. Dr. Hahn’s talk was ever timely, as the week following the conference saw the first COVID-19 treatment approval and continued challenges around vaccine clinical trials. HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s address centered around the value of data, tracking, and reporting in the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The pandemic has highlighted the tangible impacts of deficiencies in this “ecosystem” of infrastructure that digital solutions have the opportunity to address, both for COVID and for the healthcare system at large. Additionally, a candid chat with the governors of Rhode Island and Connecticut shed light on balancing priorities and navigating the pandemic.
Perhaps the most relevant, front-and-center COVID-related discussion was around the pandemic’s impact on telehealth, which Azar cited as an example of innovation during the pandemic. There has been a new openness and support for telehealth: continued push and increasing comfort with virtual care from patients, a necessary response and adaptation by providers, and, probably most importantly, payor coverage. Both private and public payors began covering telehealth visits at parity with in-person visits during the pandemic, though it is unclear if this coverage will continue.
A point-counterpoint panel moderated by Tina Reed (FierceHealthcare) shared interesting points from the Amwell and Oscar Health CEOs on the future of telehealth, emphasizing that while it’s clear that telehealth is here to stay, this is only the tip of the iceberg and we are on the cusp of true disruption. “Telehealth is a care setting. It’s not a different kind of medicine, it’s a way traditional medicine is delivered,” as Dr. Roy Schoenberg (Amwell) put it, and there will need to be a blend of virtual and physical care. Both he and Mario Schlosser (Oscar Health) drew an interesting analogy to online retail and its democratization of goods to emphasize that telehealth is not about mimicking current in-person care, but rather will be a paradigm shift in the way we access and deliver care. While COVID has been a clear driver of telehealth adoption, it will be exciting to see how virtual care progresses in a post-pandemic world (here are some of our predictions).
With all the COVID talk, HLTH was, expectedly, not in a vacuum. Today’s political environment inevitably came up both literally as keynotes by the Trump administration representatives, and in references throughout lively conversations on digital health and health innovation. This year’s conference emphasized the U.S.’ political environment as a particularly crucial lever shaping the healthcare environment in which digital health players operate.
This takes us to the important discussions on health disparities and injustices, particularly around race and intersectional inequalities. This year’s conference hosted a number of “unicorn” talks, as Dr. Ivor Horn put it, led by black and POC industry movers. Lloyd Dean (CEO, CommonSpirit) stated that while the healthcare world has discussed health disparities for over a decade, we are now at an inflection point. The virus and current social justice movements have highlighted institutional racism as a public health issue, as demonstrated by the disproportional impact of COVID-19.
Moreover, social determinants of health in the forms of mental wellbeing, behavior, access to care, and infrastructure, to name a few, are more relevant today than ever, with the convergence of a global pandemic and a wave of social justice in the U.S. As Anand Iyer (Chief Strategy Office, WellDoc) highlighted, technical innovation is changing healthcare, but it’s the infrastructural issues like food deserts and access to high-speed internet that are the table stakes needed for digital health innovations to achieve their full potential. Kaiser Permanente CEO, Greg Adams, shared a touching story shedding light on the importance of housing and mental health care on the financial and emotional wellbeing of seniors. From where I sit, we are constantly pushing innovation forward, but we need to recognize the people we are missing – ACCESS IS KEY.
Lastly, in the new pandemic world that the healthcare industry sits, mental health is still riding its wave to the center stage of healthcare. There has been a shift in recent years that places the burden of mental health care on employers, through employer-sponsored programs for example. As Dr. Mimi Winsberg (CMO, Brightside Health) outlined, this works well when you have a large employer with significant resources, however, there needs to a transition to expand access more equitably. Part of this shift relies on payors legitimizing the value and necessity of treating mental health issues. We are moving in that direction, as seen in recent inclusions of mental health care into formularies (e.g., inclusion of mental health services in Express Scripts Digital Health Formulary) and continued investment in and push of mental health services into routine care (e.g., Kaiser Permanente’s Project Chamai mental health app). As Dr. Winsberg said, “mental health needs to stop being the icing on the cake and actually get baked into the cake.”
2020 has been a landmark year for digital health innovation. Digital health IPOs are set to outpace 2019’s record-setting numbers, with public offerings made by Hims & Hers, GoodRx, One Medical, Accolade, Schrodinger, GoHealth, Amwell, and Outset Medical. One silver lining of an unprecedented global health crisis has been the increased urgency and necessity of virtual care, as reflected in CMS’ recent reimbursement of additional telehealth services. What will be most exciting is seeing how we can maintain this momentum. I’m excited to see what comes next at next year’s HLTH conference – I’m sure it’ll be nothing like this year’s.
This has been an unprecedented year in many ways, from a global pandemic, to a contentious presidential race, to a spotlight on racial injustice. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how this impacts the precision medicine and health innovation fields, and how we as movers in these industries can drive change. Connect with me on LinkedIn or email me at [email protected].
Tina is an Associate at DeciBio with a background in public health, health technology, and life science research tools. At DeciBio, Tina’s project work includes market intelligence, opportunity assessments, and go-to-market strategy development.
Disclaimer: Companies listed above may be DeciBio clients and/or customers