Entrepreneurs

How Covid Has Sped Up The Future In Healthcare

Every aspect of healthcare and medicine, from scientific research to patient care, has come under scrutiny since the pandemic began last year. Among other weaknesses, it’s revealed dysfunction within the supply chain from the initial research in the laboratory to the patient, and big gaps between technology and users. But unanticipated and time-critical demands born from a global health crisis have forced rapid innovation across the sector.

Boston-based start-up ZAGENO was founded with the goal of simplifying the process of ordering lab supplies. The platform is a sort of Amazon for life sciences disrupting what has, historically, been an archaic process involving catalogues, and purchase orders. ZAGENO users can quickly identify different suppliers for products such as enzymes and antibodies, comparing peer reviews for quality, delivery times and prices, and connecting small, emerging manufacturers to scientists and their procurement teams.

A serious consequence of the pandemic within life science research has been a massive disruption in the availability of lab supplies. Research and Development (R&D) departments typically forecast availability and plan accordingly but manufacturing and logistic delays along with unforeseen demand have up ended the status quo.  Shortly after the first lockdown began, ZAGENO was approached by a large biopharma company based in the UK. The firm had never used ZAGENO’s platform before. Now, it faced a critical lack of supplies that threatened to shut down its R & D unit. That closure would mean hundreds of its scientists would need to be furloughed. To remain operational, they had less than a week to replenish their supply. The average waiting time for lab supplies is two and a half months.

The issue escalated to ZAGENO CEO and founder Florian Wegener, who immediately mobilized teams in the U.S. and Europe to provide custom sales support, something they had never done before.

“This was an entirely new request for us. Within two days of searching our online marketplace of more than 25 million product SKUs, we managed to locate alternatives for the required supplies. Within four days, 90% of supplies were shipped to the customer, ensuring its R&D would remain open.”

Wegener explains the customer would never have shifted its procurement patterns if the need hadn’t arisen. They turned to ZAGENO because they didn’t have a backup plan. Like many necessity-propelled changes, the customer is embracing the platform along with the lower costs, rather than returning to its previous procurement protocol. It’s also prompted Wegener and his team to rethink ZAGENO’s offerings.

“We weren’t aware the need existed, so we may have stumbled upon a way to expand our business model with a white glove service.”

The limitations of the last year have also driven major innovations in tele-health. Pre-pandemic, medical visits via video were far from mainstream, embraced mostly as a way to deliver healthcare in rural parts of the world, or by busy professionals in urban centers like New York.

Covid has changed tele-health forever. Roy Schoenberg, CEO of tele-health platform, Amwell, says at the pandemic’s peak, 50-60% of healthcare interactions were via tele-health. In some parts of the U.S., take-up represented a 30-40-fold increase in volume over just a few months. It’s the kind of stratospheric rise that normally happens over generations. No one could have prepared for vast volumes.

Scaling up to ensure there were enough video servers, infrastructure and bandwidth was only one challenge for Schoenberg and his team. The bigger challenge was adapting the platform for previously non-traditional tele-health users: senior citizens.

“We had to rejig the whole way we bring patients in front of clinicians,” Schoenberg explains. “Previously, they would download an app, establish an account and log in in time for their appointment. But when you start thinking about people who are not that fluent with technology, the notion of downloading an app and signing in in time for the appointment, ensuring their phone is charged, their WIFI signal is strong…it’s a whole different ballgame. So, we had to reinvent the workflow. We had to devise a system that allows the clinician to issue a text message to the patient with a very sophisticated link that’s secure and HIPPA-certified so that the patient would literally click on the link and access their physician and chart. And sometimes those clinicians are at home as well. All of those permutations showed up out of nowhere and required true modernisation and rethinking on how people are experiencing this technology and that’s a much, much heavier lift.”

Amwell rose to the challenge and now that the genie has been let out of the bottle, Schoenberg anticipates continued growth in demand. Now that patients and clinicians are comfortable with the technology, Schoenberg envisions tele-health being applied to cancer care, elder care, chronic patient care, as well as pre- and post-op consults. More importantly, tele-health will be able to connect a specialist in New York or Chicago versed in treating a specific condition with a local physician caring for a patient in a remote area. It’s about not only sharing data, but intellectual property to proliferate quality healthcare where it’s needed.  

Schoenberg sees the development and maturation of tele-health as transformational. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years. Despite that, we underestimated the transfer power of this technology.” As tele-health grows, so too, do the opportunities to better utilize data to improve delivery of services.

Pre-pandemic, Altamira.ai, a technology firm specializing in big data analysis and artificial intelligence (AI), focused mainly on the financial sector, developing AI to provide sentiment analysis (using language and biometrics to quantify emotions) to interpret, manage and predict risk.

In the wake of Covid, the company has identified similar needs in tele-health and education, where non-verbal communication holds valuable insights.

Deborah Reid is Altamira.ai’s chief strategy officer and says current technology is still rudimentary and lacks the nuances required to deliver human interactions in a meaningful way.

“We’re using applications developed for business and applying it to human connection, which doesn’t always translate. The algorithm exists to detect whether someone is smiling or has an eye twitch. What it can’t currently do is identify subtle information, like whether the smile is masking something.”

Reid and her colleagues recognized that some of the solutions they use in managing financial risk could enable predictive and proactive, rather than reactive health solutions. Altamira.ai is working to improve sensory monitoring tools for chronic conditions like asthma.

Another priority is mental health. Using algorithms to monitor, label, and interpret video and voice data, Altamira.ai aims to deduce facial expressions and tone of voice into emotional recognition to support mental health therapy by identifying subtle behaviors.

The efficient and effective application of technology throughout healthcare – from labs to patient consults, will continue to expand access and lead to better use of resources. Clinicians and researchers can use time previously spent overwhelmed by bureaucracy and tedium, in patient-centered activities providing better care and contributing to positive outcomes.

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