Achieving Digitization in Healthcare Requires Support from Federal Policy

By Steve Allen, Director of Clinical Systems Segment, Health and Life Sciences, Intel

Imagine a specialist performing surgery on a patient from thousands of miles away via robotics, or another surgeon doing a long-distance consult in an operating room or via a remotely controlled telecart with a laser pointer to help the local team identify sensitive tissues. Or a robot that’s able to safely disinfect a public space because it senses humans and can go from room to room autonomously without help. These scenarios are possible today, although they’re not yet widely developed or deployed.

I recently had the opportunity to share my perspectives on the importance of developing “care at a distance” products and innovations at a global healthcare forum. I noted that compared to other disciplines, healthcare has been slow to adopt digital tools. We now need to pick up the pace. Only by going fully digital can we unleash the tremendous innovation and information that’s needed in healthcare and provide better care. The technology is available, and focused policy efforts can make this happen.

The pace of digital transformation has quickened as COVID-19 forced many patients and care providers to embrace telemedicine. Telehealth and remote care solutions played significant roles in preventing the collapse of the U.S. healthcare system during the initial surge of COVID patients. The pandemic has made clear there are times when physical separation between physicians and patients is needed to minimize the risk of contagion, maximize the number of patients a physician can cover or simply to accommodate geography. The number of Americans who reported participating in at least one telehealth visit increased by 57 percent since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to a recent study by Doximity, a network for professional medical providers.

The increase in adoption of telehealth has been a pivotal moment for many healthcare professionals. For example, a leading expert on pulmonary disease can “visit” with a local doctor of a different state or country to assess a patient. A doctor who needs to consult with a senior member of their care team can do so even if they are miles apart. And a physician may be able to use a mobile robotic telehealth cart without risk of exposing themselves to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

But several regulatory changes allowing for the increase in telehealth services are temporary – and limited to the duration of the pandemic. There is a particular risk for Medicare beneficiaries, who could lose permanent access to almost all the recently expanded telehealth services.

A recent letter to Congress by a group of bipartisan lawmakers led by Senator Brian Schatz (D-RI) highlights how telehealth services have been a critical resource for millions of Americans throughout the pandemic. Telehealth has ensured that patients can stay safe and continue to receive the healthcare services they need at a distance, and we are encouraged to see bipartisan support for the permanent expansion of Medicare telehealth provisions. Several bills have been introduced to make permanent certain pandemic-related telehealth coverage. Congress must now act on these key policy changes to ensure telehealth under Medicare does not revert to its pre-pandemic state.

We are entering a different world where public health, clinical care and personal wellness are evolving to embrace digital technologies. As these technologies become more widespread, the next wave of innovation will further advance the standard of care, and the digitization of care will allow for augmented experiences.

Along with this digitization come new and deeper datasets and the promise of even more insights to innovate with AI and augment care such as AI-assisted surgery, task automation and real-time patient data analytics for predictive modeling. For this promise to be more fully realized, AI needs the power of public-private partnerships, innovation and a lot of data to reach its full potential. Congress can push this forward by requiring electronic health record vendors and healthcare providers to share data with researchers using encrypted solutions that protect personal patient information.

The Department of Health and Human Services can also help by promoting AI adoption and encouraging health researchers to use data from telehealth services to train AI software that can further improve telehealth services, clinical care, healthcare operations and research. We need new policies that support AI’s need for data and allow the healthcare industry to fully adopt new technologies that can offer better care, such as telemedicine and robotics.

At Intel, we’re working with our partners to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Nowhere is that more important than in healthcare. It is time to push the digital health revolution further, and it will take the collaboration of science, industry and government to do so.