LAS VEGAS – HIMSS President and CEO Hal Wolf brought a message of guarded optimism to the HIMSS21 opening keynote on Monday night as he urged attendees to work together on addressing challenges prevalent throughout the healthcare industry.
“Our call to action has never been louder or had a greater need than right now,” he said. “We all become part of one society to impact the global health ecosystem.”
As Wolf pointed out, many of the issues facing healthcare systems globally – an aging population, geographic displacement, a lack of actionable information, funding models, staff shortages and shifting consumer demands – have only been made more complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Digital health is going to have to be used to conquer all of each of these challenges,” he said.
Many of the experts who joined Wolf onstage seemed to agree – particularly when it came to shoring up public health tools, both in the United States and abroad.
After all, as Dr. Hans Henri Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, put it: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
The panelists outlined what they saw as the main takeaways from COVID-19 – although, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Terry Adirim observed, “It’s kind of weird to be talking about lessons learned when we’re still in the middle of the throes of the pandemic.”
Still, she said, the crisis has made it clear that the United States hasn’t invested enough in public health.
“We just weren’t prepared,” she said. “We just don’t have the tools – or didn’t have the tools – we needed to respond.”
Secondly, she said, the pandemic unearthed, and amplified, structural issues regarding equity and fairness (or lack thereof) in the healthcare system.
Dr. Patrice Harris, CEO and cofounder of eMed, said that in terms of a global pandemic response, “We are experiencing the best of times, but also the worst of times.”
Even amidst accelerated technological innovations, she said, “There are so many barriers to us getting to where we need to be.”
Among those barriers are the Delta variant and the politicization of the pandemic.
“Two steps forward, one step backward,” she said.
Clalit Health Services Chief Innovation Officer Ran Balicer flagged the danger of what he called the “info-demic”: some groups having less access to accurate information, and more access to false or misleading statistics.
Here, again, is where data can come in, he said. “Local data can be analyzed and used as a key tool in order to counter this info-demic,” he said, to in turn allow people to make the right choices about preserving their health.
A recurring theme throughout the panel was the importance of breaking down silos: Because COVID-19 is a global pandemic, it requires a global response.
COVID-19, said Kluge, is a “disease of inequity.”
The danger, he said – as he’s seen with other pandemics, such as Ebola – is that it tends to trigger a cycle of panic, followed by a cycle of neglect.
“We are human beings, we have a short memory,” he said.
Adirim noted that state governments, in the rush to respond to the pandemic, tended to use what she called the “easy button” – pushing testing sites out to retail clinics in less accessible areas, for example.
To avoid that, she said, stakeholders need to consider: “How do we plan for and be inclusive of all communities, especially those that are most vulnerable?”
“We are seeing those who are able to get access to care and those who are not,” said Harris. “There’s an opportunity to leverage technology … but we will have to be intentional about the use of technology; it just won’t happen” on its own.
Harris emphasized the importance of ensuring tools won’t worsen already existing health inequities, a recurrent concern among stakeholders.
And, she said, it’s important that we all realize “we’re in the business of healthcare” – and that includes technologists, transportation officials, city planners and grocery store owners, whose work all has an effect on social determinants of health.
“We’ll have to be intentional about the work,” she said.
Read More:What we’ve learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic