Providence pivots digital consumer tools for COVID-19 response

The Seattle-based health system, long focused on keeping competitive with consumer tech, is using its platforms to help manage "the biggest disruptor we've had," says its chief digital officer.
By Mike Miliard
09:00 AM

Providence Regional Medical Center (Cindy Shebley, iStock Editorial/Getty Images)

A recent IDC Health Insights presentation focused on health IT industry trends during and after the COVID-19 era. It examined some of tools and strategies that stand to gain ground in the months ahead as health systems build on lessons learned during the coronavirus crisis.

Among the connected health trends on researchers' radar, of course: "accelerated deployment of telehealth/virtual visits, chatbot assessments, and remote health monitoring."

In addition, the public health emergency should stand to refocus attention on "vulnerable populations, including the elderly, underserved, homeless, and incarcerated."

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More broadly, IDC researchers looked ahead to consumer-facing patient engagement and experience, trends such as "Creation of the 'digital front door' to engage patients at every touchpoint using consumer technology."

This term "digital front door" is not a new one, of course. More and more health systems, having recognized the ubiquity of smartphones and other consumer tools, are embracing that strategy and shifting toward "community-based digital health services," as IDC defines it, "engaging with consumers using their own technology."

The COVID-19 public health emergency has put a spotlight on the value of being able to connect with patients where they are, and with their own technology, to help assess and triage symptoms.

And when, hopefully, the crisis recedes, those health systems that have been leaders with digital front door innovations stand to be well positioned when it comes to population health management and patient experience, as IDC Group vice president Lynne Dunbrack recently told Healthcare IT News.

"Organizations that  embraced that approach before this are probably in a much better position to respond quickly to be able to enable the community-based care that's so important for flattening the curve," said Dunbrack. "As they've made these investments and consumers have gotten used to using these technologies, I think there will be staying power if it was deployed well."

Even those providers that scrambled to deploy connected-health tools as the coronavirus pandemic spread should eventually be able to "go back to a second wave of deployment," having gained insights from the challenges of recent months, she said. "Well, we did it really quick to get it, you know, ready for the surge. Now how can we redeploy them to have that digital front door at any time – not just because we're in the midst of a pandemic and we need to respond."

'Big, needle-moving opportunities'

One health system that's been a longtime advocate of the digital front door approach is Seattle-based Providence, which in March found itself dealing with surges of new patients as Washington State became the first American epicenter of COVID-19.

Just the previous month, in a February interview before the pandemic had taken hold in the U.S., Providence Chief Digital Officer Aaron Martin spoke with Healthcare IT News Contributor Benjamin Harris about the critical need for health systems to investment in consumer experience technologies.

"We still make people make phone calls to schedule appointments," he said. "What other industry does that?"

Most folks who have been paying attention in recent years have noticed that CVS-Aetna, the Big Five tech firms, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and any number of smaller and nimble startups have been laser-focused on disrupting the healthcare status quo.

And Martin – who joined Providence six years ago from Amazon and immeditately started building a digital team of about 120 software engineers – has been keenly interested in finding "big, needle-moving opportunities" to help Providence build and maintain a digital edge when it comes to personalization and user experience.

"We thought the biggest disruptive influence would be these Big Tech disruptors. Then out of nowhere, seemingly the biggest disruptor we've had is COVID-19."

Aaron Martin, Providence

Innovating approaches to the digital front door (As in, "How do you make the healthcare experience more accessible and convenient and engaging for the consumer?") is a key component of that strategy, he said.

Partly, Providence's work on developing intuitive, transparent, on-demand patient experince is done with vendor partners such as Kyruus, which develops patient-access tools focused around provider search, match and scheduling. By taking an integrated digital approach to engagement and navigation across its sprawling health network, Providence is able to improve the patient experience and enable more streamlined and effective care coordination.

Other initiatives have been developed in-house at its Providence Ventures arm, such as Xealth, which has since been spun off as its own company. It enables physicians to prescribe digital tools and services (an iPhone app, a Lyft ride home) within EHR workflow, just as they would a medication; DexCare, another spinoff, helps patients book quick care in retail clinics.

With those tools and its online platform, all accessible by the Providence Health Connect App, "We've built the ability to seamlessly book same-day care in one of those clinics (or) do telehealth easily on demand," said Martin.

"You have to be able to do digital transactions in the same way the consumers are used to in every other part of their lives," he said.

'The biggest disruptor we've had'

That lesson learned has been put to work during Providence's ongoing response to the coronavirus crisis – with which it has had longer experience than anywhere else in the U.S.

Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, cared for the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. back in January, and the health system has been on the front lines of the Evergreen State's response since then.

"The interesting thing is we thought the biggest disruptive influence would be these Big Tech disruptors," said Martin. "Then out of nowhere, seemingly the biggest disruptor we've had is COVID-19."

Almost immediately, the health system was able to pivot its existing digital platform and pivot many of its features to meet the unique need of COVID-19 patients.

"We retooled it and reoriented it to address the coronavirus," he said. "For instance, we built a chatbot that helps us navigate patients between different modes of care, helps answer questions. We've reoriented and use that platform to help people self-assess whether or not they should seek care for the coronavirus. We launched that in about five days.

"We attached it to the DexCare platform, which powers our virtual visits and allows patients who are concerned, but do need to seek care, to not have to go to a clinic or an ED. If they're actually well, and they're not symptomatic, it prevents them from effectively going to these clinics and keeps them safe.

"If you do have symptoms that are concerning, we either tell you to go to the clinic, or to use Express Care Virtual," DexCare's app for telehealth and remote consults, said Martin. "It keeps them from having to go into the clinic and causing a bigger problem." (During the coronavirus crisis, traffic on the platform has increased sixfold, he said.)

The DexCare platform is now in the process of being implemented at four other health systems, said Martin.

"We don't try to build technology and just of hold it for ourselves," he said. "When we see a problem, first try to determine if we already own a solution to the problem. Step two is we go out and look for (a vendor) to help. If we don't find one, we go off and build it."

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
Email the writer: mike.miliard@himssmedia.com

Healthcare IT News is a publication of HIMSS Media

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