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Exclusive interview: Intel’s Chris Gough discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming telehealth

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COVID-19 has forced companies across every industry to adapt. However, no sector has felt the effects of the pandemic more strongly than the healthcare world. Chronic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), workers getting sick, and an overload of patients forced hospitals and outpatient clinics to get creative.

Although telehealth has been around for many years, its use has exploded in recent months. Not only is it a way to decrease the risk of exposure for healthcare workers, it also enhances scarce resources to impact more patients.

From robotics to AI and cloud computing to machine learning, telehealth is here to stay. Even as the pandemic subsides, it will continue to be a powerful and important tool for the healthcare industry.

I had a chance to speak with Intel’s GM of Health and Sciences, Chris Gough, about this trend and where it might be heading in the future. Read on to learn more about how the telehealth industry will adapt in the years to come and to hear Chris’ thoughts on the topic from the viewpoint of an industry leader.

Pandemic Boom

The New England Journal of Medicine defines telehealth as “the delivery and facilitation of health and health-related services, including medical care, provider and patient education, health information services, and self-care via telecommunications and digital communications technologies.”

Obviously, that is a sweeping definition that can embody a lot of different things. That’s what makes telehealth such a promising field. It is able to harness the power of technology to adapt and meet the needs of healthcare providers and their patients amid a variety of different circumstances. A global pandemic is a perfect opportunity to showcase that versatility.

Since March, that is exactly what the telehealth sector has done.

Unfortunately, the current telehealth boom was born out of necessity. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry was hindered by regulatory red tape and cost issues. Those barriers haven’t been removed.

However, the immediate need for solutions has led to temporary legislative exceptions and a “pay now, balance later” mindset for spending. In other words, telehealth has temporarily overcome the barriers, thus giving itself a moment to shine.

Now, several months into the pandemic, it is clear that telehealth has made a monumental impact on society.

Current Uses

As mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced hospitals to change their normal operations to meet the immediate needs of patients and providers. Telehealth solutions have been implemented in many unique and innovative ways.

One of the most intriguing uses is the eICU. In essence, an eICU system includes a central “hub” where doctors and nurses can watch patients and track their vital signs in real-time from afar. A connected camera (or several of them) is placed in each patient’s room along with connected monitoring equipment that sends data to the hub.

Intel and Medical Informatics Corp. (MIC) worked on a platform called Sickbay that embraces the eICU philosophy. Together, the duo provided a way for hospitals to rapidly expand their ICU capacity while simultaneously keeping healthcare workers safe.

Another interesting telehealth application is Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot. The quadruped might not seem like a natural fit in the hospital. However, it quickly became a valuable ally at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital when it was deployed as part of a test program.

The dog-like robot carried around a tablet to patients in the waiting area, allowing doctors to triage them without risking exposure to COVID-19. Boston Dynamics currently pursuing ways to make Spot even more useful. For instance, the team wants to outfit it with a thermometer to check temperatures and a UV-C light array to disinfect waiting rooms and other patient-care areas.

Murky Outlook

The future of telehealth is bright.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges in the days ahead. It remains unclear which regulatory restrictions will be put back into place once the pandemic starts to subside. Likewise, there is no guarantee that healthcare systems will continue to spend money on the tech infrastructure needed to support telehealth when it is no longer the only option.

That being said, telehealth’s recent explosion has revealed its usefulness to the world. Consumers won’t soon forget the ease of virtual doctor’s appointments or their interactions with health-focused tech throughout the pandemic. The last few months have opened the door for telehealth to retain its place as an important piece of the healthcare puzzle.

In a recent editorial, Gough said, “This technology [telehealth] has proven itself useful in providing effective care with improved patient satisfaction. It enables doctors and clinicians to see more patients, provide continuity of care for those with chronic illnesses, and deliver convenient and high-quality care while keeping themselves and others safe.”

Keep reading for more of Gough’s thoughts on where the telehealth industry stands today and where it will move in the years to come.

Interview with Intel’s Chris Gough

Cody DeBos—The Burn-In (TBI): Telehealth has obviously been exploding over the past few months. From your point of view, which telehealth innovations are here to stay and which ones might fade away as the pandemic recedes?

Chris Gough (CG): If I look at what might go away or be replaced, there was a sort of pants-on-fire reaction to ‘we need to get something in place to support the health system and remote patients during the pandemic.’

We saw that some of the existing solutions in the market were not really tested at the scale they were needed during the pandemic. So, maybe they worked great when the hospital was doing 100 remote calls or e-visits per week, but now that they’re doing thousands or even tens of thousands for large organizations, they fall flat.

We will need healthcare-focused solutions for telehealth, but they will have to be hardened and upgraded to accommodate the scale that we’re seeing now.

TBI: That’s an excellent point as far as needing the healthcare-specific solutions on top of what we’re already seeing.

CG: Yeah, so, you don’t want to disrupt the clinical workflow. If you’re going to ask clinicians to run the electronic health record in this window, and Zoom in this window, and somehow track what the patient is telling you about what their blood pressure and glucose readings were that day, it’s clearly more complicated than if you have one interface and all of the data where it’s needed.

TBI: Can you address a few of the barriers to the widespread adoption of telehealth? How does Intel plan to address these areas?

CG: We did a survey with a couple hundred leaders at U.S. health systems and asked them that very question. The top three that they came back with were, one, regulatory. The industry has made slow but steady progress towards the broader use of telehealth. When the pandemic hit, a bunch of regulations were relaxed.

It’s not totally clear which of those will be permanent and which of those will kind of revert back to the way it was before.

Intel has a global policy team and we have advocated for the broader use of telehealth for probably a decade in the U.S. We are advocating to make these relaxed regulations permanent so that we can enable these tools and capabilities and telehealth in general, but to do so in a way that also protects the privacy and security of the health information and minimizes fraud, which are legitimate concerns.

Challenge number two has to do with the ability to examine a patient… the way you would in person. Where this is going is a much greater use of healthcare in the patient’s home. Most health care providers, most experts would say, it’s a matter of time before the home is really the center of the healthcare universe, versus the hospital.

There are new models of care that are being deployed now called “hospital at home.” So here they’re actually shifting acute care, or some subset of the acute care you would get in a hospital, into the home environment.

There’s higher patient satisfaction, studies have shown, you can reduce cost and improve the health outcomes for some of these acute conditions. But here, the technology requirements will be greater. So, you’re moving from your episodic measurements for vital signs, devices to maybe streaming telemetry. The criticality for each condition is quite a bit higher than it would be for monitoring long term chronic conditions.

I think it will be a challenge, not necessarily a technical challenge… but to really enable that shift of acute care into the home.

Then lastly, there is a challenge around underserved populations, at-risk populations. Not everyone has Wi-Fi, not everyone has devices and access to telehealth services.

[There are also] concerns around older adults and their use of technology. Although they seem to have done pretty well during the pandemic, those are legitimate concerns.

Those align very well with Intel’s Corporate Social Responsibility goals around using technology to bridge that digital divide. We have a Pandemic Response Technology Initiative where we’ve set aside funds and resources to help health and life sciences organizations during the pandemic and we are prioritizing requests that that help bridge the digital divide for underserved populations.

One other aspect of this that might not be obvious is Intel’s big focus on data, which includes machine learning and AI and those techniques. We feel that ensuring that the data that’s used to create those algorithms is representative of all populations.

So those are the big three and some examples of how Intel’s addressing those.

TBI: The aspect you touched on, especially the underserved populations, that the whole telehealth movement is a great way for the healthcare field to reach out to them and bridge that gap. It’s definitely something exciting.

CG: CMS Center for Medicare, Medicaid, they did announce, I believe in early August, the intent to make permanent some of these regulations that have been relaxed. One area that was specifically called out was using telehealth to meet the needs of those underserved populations. It’s a barrier, but also an opportunity.

TBI: How does Intel plan to be at the forefront of the telehealth push, specifically on the tech side, in the coming years?

CG: As a company, machine learning and AI are core to our growth strategy, core to our strategies a company. In healthcare, there are a couple of areas that will apply. These telehealth systems give a great opportunity to monitor patients on more of a continuous basis as opposed to episodic visits to the doctor’s office.

I view that as a spoke of a wheel where the core is really like a system wide intelligence platform or data platform. So, not only will telehealth data feed the continual monitoring data into these systems, but it’ll include data from the electronic health record and include data from, depending on the organization, claims, or even genomic information.

Machine learning will really be the core capability that will help healthcare organizations get intelligence out of the combined data set to understand ‘this is the high-risk population, this is a patient who is at risk of maybe being transferred to a higher level of care within the hospital, maybe being readmitted back into the hospital,’ and enabling them to intervene to prevent that from happening.

I think not only storing that data but enabling healthcare to deploy those predictive analytics at scale is really a critical area that Intel is focused on. Our hardware supports this from a number of computing storage and networking products. We also have a very sizable software team, like 15,000 software developers.

Some of what they’re working on is making it easier to deploy these more advanced capabilities at scale.

I personally think it’s the intersection of data combined with other data sources and helping deploy that intelligence at scale that is really going to have the greatest impact.

TBI: On a more general level, how do you see this increase in demand for telehealth solutions affecting the chip industry within the next few years?

CG: Good question. Basically, if you think of patient monitoring, you’re taking a scenario that is not digitized. Let’s say if you go to the doctor’s office and you have a conversation with your doctor… it’s a face-to-face meeting. If you take that scenario, and then digitize that workflow, it’s a video scenario. Today it might be only to enable that communication, but there are lots of opportunities to analyze that video stream in real-time. Not just the video, but the audio [as well].

It’s another digitized workload that’s driving more demand for the data center. So, it will increase it over time. We’ve seen a lot of demand, especially for devices, during the pandemic to enable more telehealth. Really [the demand] is resulting from just digitizing a workflow that was previously not digitized.

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