COVID-19 has created a healthcare crisis not only because of the incidence of the virus itself, but because of the explosion of healthcare challenges that have gone un-addressed because providers have been all-hands-on-deck against the coronavirus.
That sums up the alarm raised in a recent commentary at HITConsultant by Linda Hand, CEO of Prealize, a population health solutions provider.
As she sees it, while all eyes are on the common enemy of the coronavirus, millions of other Americans are suffering health challenges often just as serious, but without the access to healthcare services they need.
“These unseen individuals are facing major challenges, on multiple levels: acute, chronic, and preventive,” Hand writes. “Patients are waiting longer at home before coming to the hospital for acute illnesses like appendicitis, stroke, or heart attack. Patients with chronic diseases are not receiving maintenance care that can prevent their conditions from getting worse. Lastly, preventive services, such as routine blood pressure checks, colonoscopies, and pap smears, have gone without attention in recent months, which means more patients now live with an undiagnosed chronic disease or cancer.”
For example, Hand notes, diabetes affects more than 30 million Americans, and neglecting to control it significantly increases the risk of events such as heart attack, stroke and kidney disease.
Another impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is more indirect, according to Hand.
“The shelter-in-place orders necessary to stop the spread of the virus has led to increasing social isolation, widespread unemployment and anxiety, creating the perfect storm for an epidemic of clinical depression and anxiety,” she explains, citing a survey that suggests the incidence of clinical anxiety may have nearly doubled since the pandemic started.
Also indirect is the effect unemployment can have on the ability to access healthcare services.
“More than 20 million people filed for jobless claims in the month of March and April and many of them will have trouble finding adequate health coverage for themselves and their families. As a result, they delay access to necessary care and upon returning to care, will likely be in poorer health,” she says.
What does all this have to do with AI?
As Hand sees it, addressing the impact of these myriad non-pandemic health challenges will require actively seeking out patients who may currently be avoiding the healthcare system. And “(a)ccurately locating those unseen sufferers is exactly the kind of challenge artificial intelligence (AI) can solve. By using this technology to identify high-risk patients, we can determine who is most likely to show up at the hospital before they do. . . AI can empower health plans, providers and employers to proactively care for their patients before they get sick.”
In short, says Hand, “(w)e simply cannot afford to have an epidemic of preventable diseases, as well. We must rapidly deploy all the tools at hand—including AI—to proactively care for those with chronic, preventative conditions while the primary focus is on COVID-19.”