When the Covid-19 public health crisis took hold, hospitals and health systems were forced to make critical decisions rapidly to implement and scale up the kinds of innovation they’d talked about for years and had slowly integrated. Matthew Warrens, UnityPoint Health’s Managing Director of Innovation, said the health system robustly embraced technology solutions offered by companies within the UnityPoint Health Ventures portfolio to not only support patients but also for the benefit of employees.

Historically, UnityPoint Health Ventures invests in early stage companies across digital health, medical devices, healthcare technology systems and healthcare services. The fund supports companies whose technology can be integrated throughout the UnityPoint Health system, which includes 21 hospitals and19 affiliates throughout Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

One of the first steps was to set up a command center to speed up and streamline decision making. Warrens was quick to note that this move is common for healthcare organizations in an emergency, but what made it unique was the duration in which the command center was needed. The command center resulted in change and expedited decision making that has spread beyond its walls and into the organization’s overall decision making process. 

UnityPoint Health was forced to rapidly scale telemedicine access and other digital solutions, but the time it took to do so still gives Warrens pause. UnityPoint Health was forced to scale telemedicine access and other digital solutions at unprecedented speeds. 

“We have never taken a technology and gone through security review to contract implementation in 21 days. I think we’ve always known we could roll things out that quickly and probably scale things up quickly. The pandemic made the whole organization realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute. We can do this and we can do this faster than we assumed that we could.’”

The health system added hundreds of its physicians to telemedicine platforms. It also rolled out Well Health, a patient communication platform that provides a virtual waiting room to patients visiting outpatient settings. When patients arrived at the hospital for a scheduled visit they would send a text alert to their doctor’s office and receive a link to complete an electronic intake form. This allowed the flow of patients to be managed without crowding waiting rooms.

Two other companies that UnityPoint has relied on include portfolio companies CareSignal (formerly Epharmix) and SilverCloud Health. SilverCloud specializes in behavioral health and developed clinically validated programs for users to complete online that help reduce anxiety and depression, among other mental health and wellness needs. Warrens said the health system made the software available to employees, and their families, and patients in the early days of the crisis. He pointed out that SilverCloud also created a module specific to challenges associated with Covid-19. 

The health system also integrated patient access to SilverCloud as part a revamp of its patient-facing websites to put Covid-19 resources front and center. 

“We’ve seen a significant increase in PHQ-9 scores, which is the standard questionnaire recognized nationally for measuring depression and anxiety.” 

Care Signal, which focuses on deviceless remote monitoring for patients with chronic conditions, quickly developed a solution to support symptom monitoring and tracking around Covid-19 for health system staff and patients. 

Another tricky challenge for Warrens and UnityPoint Health Ventures was how to do the job of meeting with and evaluating companies in the middle of a pandemic. As he noted, some of the companies they were evaluating for investments were on their radar anyway and had been in conversations with them well ahead of the pandemic.

“We continue to constantly look at companies. For us to want to invest in a company, there must be a differentiating product, a market for it and we have to believe in the management team. It’s hard to go into that process and build your confidence in the team remotely — you want to be in the same room with them and really understand how they think and what makes them tick. And so how do you understand that through video? I think that is something we quickly adapted to.

Warrens noted that UnityPoint Health Ventures already had a pipeline of companies it planned to work with but the pandemic shifted the priorities for which companies it would work with first. Bright.MD’s online visit software was of interest long before the pandemic but the public health crisis heightened the need for investing in that company. Bright.MD enables healthcare providers to create a virtual front door through which patients can navigate, be triaged, and receive care for low-acuity medical conditions or be routed to in-person or video visits.

UnityPoint Health Ventures has since slowed down its investment activity. Instead, Warrens and his team have shifted their focus to how this pandemic is changing markets in real time and what markets will emerge or even go away when this public health crisis is over.

Warrens said most of the non-essential staff work remotely and in most cases did so for the first time in April. He acknowledged that there was a learning curve but that the crisis has permanently transformed how they work.

“We rolled out Microsoft Teams. It has chat channels and video capabilities. What was interesting was when we all started working from home, we realized not just our team, but the staff across the health system were relying on Microsoft Teams as well. Now it’s the standard platform we’re all using for communication and meetings. Initially, people would keep the video setting off. But then it got to the point where now, people feel uncomfortable unless everyone has their video turned on.

“I don’t think the way of doing ‘office business’ is going to go back to the way it was before. I think we’ve learned we don’t need a three-hour meeting for everything. We don’t all need to be in the same room or even the same city to get things done.”

Although the swift adoption and scaling of telemedicine is frequently cited to explain why healthcare delivery will be irreversibly changed, many of these reimbursement policies the government has rolled out are only supposed to be temporary. But Warrens passionately believes consumers who like the experience will demand it. 

“Telemedicine is now part of mainstream clinical practice. Before the pandemic, even though we have been pushing for digital health adoption, it didn’t resonate with consumers because it was not part of their experience. Now that consumers have had that experience, they’re going to demand it, too. That’s going to drive health systems to continue to provide these services, and it will drive payers to reimburse for these services permanently. So for payers, it won’t just be the health systems anymore; it will be self-insured employers and their other members advocating for it.”

Photo: NicoElNino, Getty Images

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