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The coronavirus pandemic may force health care organizations to face a crisis that will feel unprecedented in terms of scale and overcapacity. This isn’t verbiage meant to scare people, it’s a reality in Italy and could be an American problem very soon. For health care organizations, this means long-term innovation plans are becoming immediate strategic initiatives.  

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. 

Interestingly, for leaders at Providence St. Joseph Health in Washington state, which was the first system to treat coronavirus patients in the U.S., it’s an example of history repeating itself. The Catholic Sisters who founded and operated St. Joseph Health vastly expanded the health care organization in response to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 million people worldwide.  

“They built hospitals all across California. That’s when they started, during the Spanish flu epidemic, because there was no other service for those patients,” says Sara Vaezy, chief digital strategy and business development officer at Providence St. Josephs Health (PSJH). Aaron Martin, chief digital officer at PJSH, adds that the organization is once again expanding its capacity to reach patients, this time through virtual innovation in response to coronavirus. “We’re drawing inspiration from the stories of heritage. Pioneering woman who did incredible work,” he says.  

PSJH, like any health care organization right now, is figuring out how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic as it changes in real time, innovating in rapid speed and trying to keep patients and the public at large as safe as possible. Martin, who spoke with Health Evolution a few weeks ago about its massive plans for AI, says that many of these technologies have been moved from long-term business plans to immediate implementations. From a multiyear strategy to a 10-day plan.  

Across, the board—providers, payers and other stakeholders—are working to immediately meet the increasing demands and capacity that is being caused by coronavirus. Health Evolution spoke to a few organizations who shared strategies. Here’s what they had to say. 

Providence St. Joseph Health 

At PSJH, Martin and the digital team leveraged its investments into chatbot capabilities to create a self-triage tool. This technology helps potential coronavirus patients give a self-assessment that will determine next steps to take if they think they have the virus. The system also has reoriented and scaled up its virtual telehealth platform, Express Care Virtual, to be able to accommodate an increasing demand.  

Both these platforms aim to treat patients without having to expose them to the virus in the hospital and potentially increasing the problem, particularly if there’s no need for them to come in. It also aims to ease the anxiety of patients. In a short time, it’s become clear that patients are responding to the need, says Martin.  

“When we deployed the [telehealth] technology on Monday [March 2nd], we saw a 6x jump day-over-day in the usage of it,” he notes. The chatbot/triage tool has seen a heavy increase in usage as well, since it was made available on Sunday [March] 8th 

For PSJH, it’s a matter of fortune that the organization was willing to invest in AI and these technologies a few years back. This isn’t what the organization expected, but it’s glad to have the capabilities regardless. 

“These investments were made to mitigate disruption. We were always thinking about business model disruption with respect to the new entrants into health care and the competition for a better consumer experience. That was what this technology was built for. It turns out an even bigger disruptive force is coming in and that’s Covid-19,” Martin says. 

Working the round clock 

For the past two weeks, Martin’s digital team has been essentially working around the clock to rapidly iterate this technology and support caregivers on the frontlines. It’s been important to have a solution that can not only scale fast, but change and adapt quickly, says Maryam Gholami, Chief Product Officer at Digital Innovations at PSJH. As information and workflows around the coronavirus change, the self-triage and virtual care tools must adapt as well. 

“The objective is to get as many patients as possible reliable information about their health status as quickly as possible. How are we configuring the technology to reach that objective? The objective is not to increase the number of virtual visits, we want to increase the number of virtual visits to yield someone who has a problem. We’re trying to conserve capacity. The function of a triage process is when someone needs to be seen, in a clinic or the ED, we got them there correctly and their health status justifies that,” says Martin. 

The technology, especially the triage tool, is a work in progress. Gholami says there is a structured chat format that they are working to make it a more open chat functionality, where patients don’t have to ask specific questions to get answers. She’s also looking at how to improve the technology and user experience. “The lesson for me is that it can come and we have to be better prepared. How do we think ahead of these epidemics? From a tech and product standpoint, I’m thinking about how we can be better prepared for a disaster,” she adds. 

Martin says being proactive and having technological capabilities isn’t the only lesson he has learned from this experience. He also has seen the benefit of investing in top-tier talent as well. “We’re really lucky we have the technical and clinical teams in this region where this thing unfortunately started in the U.S.,” he says.   

Spectrum Health  

In Michigan, Spectrum Health is also relying on virtual care to treat patients and preserve capacity for the coronavirus pandemic. Darryl Elmouchi, MD, CMO of Spectrum Health System, and President, Spectrum Health Medical Group, says the organization has had a virtual care program for years and realized it would be a good way to deal with the likely increasing onslaught of concerned patients. Like PSJH, Spectrum wanted to ensure those not seriously ill were not exposing themselves to coronavirus by needlessly going to the hospital or an urgent care clinic.