Perspectives from a pandemic: A surprising catalyst for change

Throughout this “Perspectives from a pandemic” series of articles, we’ve sought to learn from the impact of COVID-19 on health care and other industries. We’ve examined areas where data, process and technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive models fell short. And we have identified opportunities to bolster our capabilities to support better decision making through more complete real-time data, enhanced interoperability and data sharing, and more advanced disease modeling and surveillance capabilities.

So, what’s the key takeaway? While COVID-19 has created unprecedented social and economic challenges, it also has given us a unique opportunity to make a lasting difference.

The requirements to respond effectively to this crisis are like those needed to solve many of the critical care delivery and operational challenges in health care. Access to more complete, timely and accurate information, working across boundaries and using advanced predictive models are keys to improving outcomes, enhancing patient experiences and reducing the cost of care.

Capitalizing on momentum to achieve the Quadruple Aim

COVID-19 has illuminated key data, analytics and collaboration challenges that we’ve long worked to overcome. The sense of urgency in our collective response to COVID-19 rallied stakeholders around a common-purpose. As a result, we’re witnessing an accelerated digital transformation — not just in data and analytics, but across the entire health care ecosystem.

Looking forward, the questions become: How can we sustain this momentum, and what must we do to continue breaking barriers to improve our ability to address public health crises and build a more agile, responsive and patient-centered health system?

Improving public health outcomes

Traditionally, health care has not been a forward-looking industry. In fact, and as proven by our reliance on historical claims data, we tend to look backward for answers.

Becoming more predictive as an industry could be a game-changer for public health. We’ve seen this on a small scale with our flu forecast, which we’ve evolved over the last six months to make predictions about COVID-19, along with a suite of other COVID-related predictive models. But forecast tools like these have value beyond one specific disease or virus.

We’re now developing the Optum Infectious Disease Platform (IDP), which will allow us to surveil real-time data for signals indicating the ongoing evolution of COVID-19 and the emergence of other infectious diseases. By getting ahead of outbreaks, we can offer valuable insights that can be used to improve public health.

Elevating the patient and provider experience

Concerns about exposure to COVID-19 dramatically increased demand for telehealth technologies. Loosened governmental regulations and expanded reimbursement coverage made telehealth visits more accessible. As a result, a July 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that, in April, nearly half (43.5%) of Medicare beneficiaries had participated in primary care visits via telehealth, compared to less than 1% in February.

Now that so many patients have experienced virtual care, it is unlikely we will see a return to pre-pandemic level of in-person visits, particularly for routine episodes of care.

But if virtual care is providing more options and greater convenience for patients, how can lessons from our COVID-19 response drive solutions to improving satisfaction among clinicians? These frontline workers are lauded, rightfully, for their dedication to patients through this crisis. They’ve benefitted from initiatives that have reduced their administrative burden. Just like fewer consumers will return to office visits, our care teams won’t likely welcome the types of administrative tasks that have long been a source of burnout.

Let’s tackle these problems with the same urgency with which we came together around solving testing, data sharing and care delivery for COVID-19. There’s simply never been a better time for us — health care leaders, technologists, suppliers and even regulators — to come innovate together to reduce the regulatory burdens driving excess cost and complexity in the system.

Reducing health care costs

Robust patient registries — when used to their full potential — improve care and can reduce health care costs. In the case of COVID-19, knowing who has the virus, or who is most at risk, allows for enhanced care management and proper allocation of services. Getting the right care to the patient when they need it can ultimately reduce costs.

At Optum, we’ve brought several teams together to combine our best thinking around a COVID-19 patient registry. By creating one tool for our organization, we’re achieving efficiencies while also helping teams across Optum, like our care managers or those providing in-home care.

Institutionalizing pandemic-inspired change

We will eventually move on from COVID-19, but there are things inspired by this pandemic that we’ll want to continue. How might we operationalize the things we’ve learned?

At Optum, our Enterprise Analytics team quickly became a hub connecting many spokes across our organization. While it’s not our official role to coordinate COVID-19 activity, we saw a need to get people together to share information and get aligned around priority initiatives, including our forecasting tools and patient registry.

To that end, organizations large and small could benefit from hub-and-spoke or center-of-excellence models to connect people around common objectives. COVID-19 has given everyone in health care a collective focus. And we now have the beginnings of a blueprint for combining data, analytics and innovative technologies to provide a common context and language that advances patient care.

It takes an incredible amount of force to overcome the inertia within a $4 trillion ecosystem. From the COVID-19 experience, the silver lining is the power of our collective response. We can make progress when the will is there. It’s important that at this moment in time, we commit to remembering all we’ve learned and carrying it forward for a better system of care.

Additional stories around the industry response to COVID-19 and our efforts to confront current challenges can be found in the Optum® News Room. You can also find more perspectives on enabling health care innovation on our data, analytics and technology blog.

About the author

Steve Griffiths, PhD, MS
Senior Vice President, Chief Operating Officer
Optum Enterprise Analytics

Steve Griffiths brings more than two decades of experience in health analytics management to his role as leader of the Optum Enterprise Analytics organization. Steve holds a PhD in health services research, policy and administration from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree in biostatistics from the University of Washington.

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