Health IT Love in the Time of COVID

I think it is fitting to invoke an author like Gabriel Garcia Márquez (Love in the Time of Cholera) when penning an article about Jane Sarasohn-Kahn @HealthyThinker   – who I consider to be one of the best healthcare writers working today. I recently sat down with Sarasohn-Kahn to talk about the current state of healthcare and health IT.

In typical fashion, our conversation touched on many different aspects of care, technology, society and culture with Sarasohn-Kahn masterfully weaving them all together. Her key message: if we are truly seeking to transform healthcare, we are going to need more love AND tech.

For those that aren’t familiar with Sarasohn-Kahn, here is a quick primer:

I highly encourage you to read her blog and her book. She is always spot-on in her insights and commentary. I am always fascinated by the connections she makes between different trends. “Trend weaver” is truly an apt description for Sarasohn-Kahn.

More love, especially during COVID
“We have a unique opportunity right now to inspire a more equitable and just healthcare system that really focused on the public’s health,” stated Sarasohn-Kahn. “But to do that, we need to cross a chasm that is beneath us and that is: Are we truly our brother’s keepers?”

According to Sarasohn-Kahn, the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare a deep-rooted societal issue – that we are more divided today as people and nations than we previously believed ourselves to be. Mask-wearing has divided us, despite it being an effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. The concept of wearing a mask to save the life of others has been rallied against by those who see it as an infringement on their right to do as they please. The same applies to stay-at-home orders which was not just for our own personal safety, but for the safety of frontline healthcare workers.

If more people cared about each other, we wouldn’t see such strong defiance of measures designed to help us all.

Sarasohn-Kahn does not blame politics for the lack of brotherly/sisterly love. Instead she sees the challenges we face as an outcome of years and years of a “me first” society. We laud the winner-take-all in sports and business. We are infatuated with celebrities and aspire to achieve the same levels of material wealth. We look at those less fortunate and believe it is simply of case of not “working harder”.

“Coming out of COVID, will we have the collective political will and love to deal with climate change which impacts our financial and medical well-being?” asked Sarasohn-Kahn. “Will we have the will to close the income disparity gap? Address the lack of affordable housing? Fix public transportation?”

At the risk of sounding hokey, the answer from Jane is a resounding YES. I echo her belief. Despite how dark things seem right now, there are many caring people who are seeking to make the world a better place – they just aren’t as vocal and are not getting the same air-time in the news.

Hundreds of nurses and doctors traveled across the US to help care for patients. Thousands of individuals and businesses donated Personal Protective Equipment to frontline workers. Millions of people around the world worked from home and stayed indoors to stop the spread of the virus.

A little closer to home: many health IT companies made their software free or deeply discounted to healthcare providers. Many rushed out new features and functions that were desperately needed by their end users.

These acts are the manifestation of love for each other. We just need more of it if we are to bring about the transformation in healthcare that we want to see.

Digital transformation needs to be more than just a buzzword.
As Sarasohn-Kahn observed, we entered the pandemic still using fax machines in healthcare. There are so many digital alternatives to this age-old technology – including direct messaging and even eFaxing – yet the fax machine remains part of everyday healthcare operations. Can we truly achieve a digital transformation when we continue to stubbornly do things the way they have always been done?

The term “digital transformation” is a term that Sarasohn-Kahn believes is in danger of becoming “market-ese” – an empty term spouted by the industry without any serious thought or action put behind it. “We need to fully embrace what we can now do with FHIR standards and APIs to open and enable what had been a fairly closed system” said Sarasohn-Kahn.

We need to prioritize privacy beyond HIPAA.
Sarasohn-Khan noted that conversations around privacy have essentially stopped because of the pandemic. Ironically, once we stopped debating privacy and data transportability, healthcare addressed the problem.

As patients began flooding into emergency rooms and ICUs in certain cities, healthcare organizations quickly came together to share patient information and did whatever was needed to ensure medical records could follow those patients wherever they ended up being cared for. We proved that interoperability can be achieved – even if it was done using a patchwork of technologies – when payers, providers and government agencies are aligned.

According to Sarasohn-Kahn, we need to do more legislatively to continue to improve patient privacy. Whereas other countries have made great strides in consumer privacy (GDPR, for example), here in the US we still have a lot more work to do. As health data begins to be shared more easily, we will need airtight privacy legislation to protect individual rights.

Health literacy is more than understanding the basics of medicine
Health literacy is a term we hear a lot in healthcare, but we typically think about it in terms of what patients understand about their own care. Sarasohn-Kahn shared how important it is for us to broaden that definition and include digital literacy. As homecare becomes more prevalent, patients with remote health monitoring devices will need to understand how to use those devices and feel comfortable with them. Designing healthcare technology to be not just “engaging” but truly enjoyable to use will be key to achieving that.

Gifts from the present state
“Telehealth has certainly been one of the gifts from COVID-19,” mused Sarasohn-Kahn. “There has also been great art and great soul. We have also come to the realization that things have not been fair and equitable for too long. We have an opportunity to inspire a more equitable and just healthcare system right now.”

I would add that we have been given a gift of meaningful connection. Without conferences, workspaces or social gatherings, we have all had to find other ways to connect with those that we cherish, respect and love. Instead of a quick “hello” in a crowded conference, we are now having 15, 30, even hour-long discussions with friends and colleagues via web conference. We have been given a gift of discovering how deep our connections can be.

I for one, am grateful to have had this opportunity to connect with Sarasohn-Kahn.

Watch the full interview with Jane Sarasohn-Kahn to learn:

  • What the biggest challenge facing health care is (besides COVID of course)
  • What popular retailer might be breaking into the healthcare space (the answer may surprise you!)
  • The four key barriers we need to eliminate to move toward a hospital-to-home healthcare model
  • The crucial role our social and career networks play in our ability to make a difference in healthcare
  • What “FOLH” means and why it might be the new “FOMO”

This article is part of the #HealthIT100in100

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About the author

Colin Hung

Colin Hung

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.