In New York, group distributes Kinsa smart thermometers to protect against COVID-19

The collaborative, led by former ONC deputy Dr. Jacob Reider's Alliance for Better Health, is giving more than 7,000 Bluetooth-enabled devices to help community organizations and underserved individuals.
By Mike Miliard
04:14 PM

Albany, New York

In an effort to protect public health workers and the vulnerable communities they serve, Troy, New York-based Alliance for Better Health has convened a group effort to distribute about 7,500 smart thermometers to community-based organizations and their members around New York's Capital District.

By distributing the Bluetooth-connect Kinsa Health thermometers to social and behavioral health service organizations, the collaborative, which involves hospitals, health plans and nearly three dozen other organizations around the Albany region, hopes to deliver a service that could be scaled into a national model. The devices enable workers to monitor their own temperatures and protect the underserved communities in which they volunteer.

In March, Healthcare IT News reported on how the Kinsa Health thermometers, which pair with a smartphone app, are enabling real-time insights into COVID-19 hot spots across the U.S. They help healthcare organizations and public health researchers map trends and gain insights into the spread of unexplained fevers that may be signs of coronavirus.

"Many of the community-based organizations we partner with have told us that it's hard to get thermometers," explained Dr. Jacob Reider, CEO of the Alliance for Better Health and former Deputy National Coordinator for Health IT.

"We believe that by getting these thermometers into the hands of Medicaid members, uninsured individuals and the community partners who serve these people, this initiative will help people understand their symptoms sooner, which can result in more proactive isolation procedures – while also providing insight to public health professionals about emerging COVID-19 hotspots to help local officials better direct limited public resources."

Some of the thermometers will go directly to underserved individuals, but most will be given to community workers at organizations such as homeless shelters and food banks.

Peter Kelsey, Chief Operating Officer at Schenectady-based The Altamont Program, which provides residential services, said the thermometers will give its employees and those they serve "valuable tools to help us be proactive in evaluating their health."

The distribution offers the program the "ability to monitor new admissions, and know in advance if they are potentially infected, allowing us to keep anyone who may be high risk separated from the general population until a formal evaluation can be made," he said.

Other organizations, such as Food Pantries for the Capital District, will be using the smart thermometers for a different type of hot spot tracking – gaining insights into areas that could most use their services. Natasha Pernicka, the organization's executive director, noted a correlation between those who are food insecure and their COVID-19 vulnerability.

The Alliance for Better Health – which was first launched in 2015 to address social determinants of health, to serve the underserved and to help build health equity – has engaged in a number of innovative partnerships over the years toward that goal.

In addition to this smart thermometer effort, the alliance has also recently donated more than 400 Zoom licenses and a few dozen laptops to help CBOs in the region continue their social services coordination during the pandemic. It also helped secure the provision of some 20,000 surgical masks for area organizations, launched its own COVID-19 resource page and more.

"This is how innovation sometimes occurs"

In a recent interview with Healthcare IT News, Reider said the coronavirus crisis has revealed the key importance of addressing social determinants and working to remove health inequities.

"Historically, people like me – and when I say people like me, I mean physicians – are trained in the medical mindset," he explained. "We haven't really thought about these things too much. We might have taken a class in public health in medical school or, you know, we may have a passing, fleeting interest in population health. But I don't I don't think we've been incorporating really deep thinking about social determinants into how we think about our work."

But now "we're starting to get to a place where we can do something about social determinants in a coordinated way," Reider explained. "Before, of course, we had homeless shelters and food pantries and transportation services, but they were never coordinated regionally. Through the efforts of organizations like ours – and we're definitely not the only organization that's doing this – we're coordinating those services and we're linking the availability of the services to the folks who are screening for the problems."

I think that this emphasizes the need for a shift to value-based payment. Because if we can really separate the visit from the value, I think we can really meet people's needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the focus on new approaches to care delivery that can expand access to care and contribute to improvements in health and wellness, said Reider. Obviously the biggest one is the "exponential growth of telehealth," he said.

"Organizations that three weeks ago told me, 'No, we're not interested in telehealth because we actually need to be in the same room with a patient right now,' three weeks later, they're fully embracing it. And I think that this is the tipping point for telehealth services, and will significantly improve access and reduce the number of people who physically go to a doctor's office for various things, forever. And not just medical care, but also behavioral health and substance-use disorders, treatment."

The coronavirus has created a worldwide public health emergency, but "this is how innovation sometimes occurs," Reider said.

"COVID-19 does give us an opportunity to really focus on high-priority issues," he explained. "It really, really begs the question, like what's important? What's important in terms of our daily lives? What's important about which shopping do I actually do?

"So for states and for the federal government, it's a really good opportunity to say, OK, where are the places where we should invest so that we can support the community so that they are healthy? What about the poor people who either have just Medicaid or have no insurance at all? And if they have no insurance, what are the choices that have to make, and how are we helping them?"

Through his work with Alliance for Better Health, "I want to make the right thing to do the easy thing to do," said Reider. And through this crisis and beyond, he said he plans to continue building upon the groundwork already laid by the alliance and other groups like it, to help address those questions.

"These are the times when shovel-ready solutions are necessary," he said. "We can offer this network of social care providers, at least across New York State, to support communities in a way that I don't think the medical providers can do by themselves."

Population health management enters an uncharted new era

This month, we look at how approaches to treating COVID-19 and other illnesses are shifting in this new era.

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
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