More than 1,300 people recently attended the virtual National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) Quality Talks, where healthcare leaders reflected on lessons learned for a post-pandemic healthcare system. While the speakers and expertise were diverse, two clear themes emerged: equity and innovation. Here are my observations.
Key Takeaway #1: Equity, empathy and trust matter
The most obvious theme of the event was equity. With African Americans experiencing COVID mortality at more than twice the rate of other races, it’s high-time that equity is a top priority for all regulators, health systems and payers. Many of the speakers offered their perspective on how enhancing the patient-provider relationship is key to improving care delivery, particularly for addressing racial disparities in healthcare.
According to the President and CEO of Montefiore Medicine, Philip Ozuah, MD, PhD, the most important action in the fight for healthcare equity is developing patient-provider trust. Dr. Ozuah suggested that all of us must join together in the war against healthcare inequities to ensure the most vulnerable are taken care of because they sadly have borne the brunt of this pandemic.
Adding to the theme of equity, Dr. Morgan Hutchinson, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital Director of Education, spoke on the importance of developing systems built on empathy. When the pandemic hit, Dr. Hutchinson and her team used empathy as the core principle in designing solutions. She said, “We [Healthcare system] too often default to a one-size fits all solution,” which only results in poor outcomes and frustrated patients and providers. Her team was able to successfully develop more than 30,000 swabs for COVID testing and partner with the City of Philadelphia to launch two pop-up testing sites in underserved communities. She credits the success of these projects to the guiding principle of empathy.
Next up, Dr. Sandro Galea of Boston University School of Public Health challenged attendees with the question, “Can we get to the place where everyone gets access to health?” He believes doctors matter but they are part of the bigger picture and encouraged attendees to think about equal access to healthy lives rather than only equal access to healthcare. When asked what the two most important changes that need to be made in social determinants of health are, Dr. Galea responded with, “We need to change whatever is easiest to change in the context of the patient…if housing is easiest, change it. But education...education sets people up for a life course of better health.”
Later in the day, in her talk, “Being a Doctor Doesn’t Protect Me,” Dr. Marcee Wilder spoke about her personal experiences with fighting racial disparities in both her professional life, and in her personal life as a patient. As a practicing physician in Washington D.C., she saw firsthand how African Americans are seven times more likely to die due to COVID than whites. To help solve racial disparities in the U.S., she closed with three calls to action: (1) Add the topics of racial disparities in healthcare and structural racism to the medical school curriculum, (2) Continue to diversify and expand the workforce and (3) Address the SDOH that cause diseases (i.e., affordable housing and food insecurity).
Key Takeaway #2: Let’s use the lessons of COVID to make healthcare better
The second theme of the event was innovation. Sometimes tough situations force us to think creatively; that was definitely the case with COVID. Many speakers spoke of innovation being a byproduct of the pandemic.
Dr. Adam Landman, Vice President and Chief Information & Digital Innovation Officer, recalled how Brigham and Women’s Hospital met the Massachusetts Depart of Public Health’s requirement for daily attestations on symptoms from over 80,000 (!) employees using a phone app. As their phone lines clogged during the peak of the pandemic, he described how they used chatbots to match patients with appropriate levels of care, which freed up resources for more complex calls. Simple, but effective!
Similarly, Dr. Lindsey Leininger of Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, joined an all-female team of scientists,“Nerdy-girls,” and led a public education campaign on social media to spread trustworthy information surrounding the pandemic. This ability to think outside the box to quickly and effectively educate the community likely saved lives.
This past year has been the most tragic in recent history with COVID ravaging our communities, with racial and social inequities rocking our communities…but I’ve also never remembered a time when I’ve been so touched by human kindness and strength.
Julia Hu, CEO & Co-founder, Lark Health
Lark Health Co-founder, Julia Hu, spoke about her own experience in the healthcare system as a child and recalled a primary care provider (PCP) taking the time and energy to find ways to best manage her chronic illness. She said that the CDC reported 90% of the nation’s $3.8 trillion in annual healthcare expenditure are for people with chronic conditions; that chronic disease patients have a higher risk for COVID complications; and that chronic disease disproportionately impacts racial minorities. She’s committed to making a difference like her PCP did when she was a child: Lark Health’s innovative solution is the equivalent of a 24/7 nurse, providing patients with the care they need—when they need it— via a phone app and text messaging.
Attending NCQA Quality Talks was refreshing. I think Julia Hu from Lark Health put it best when she stated, “This past year has been the most tragic in recent history with COVID ravaging our communities, with racial and social inequities rocking our communities. We have all suffered in our own ways, but I’ve also never remembered a time when I’ve been so touched by human kindness and strength.”
Many of the speakers have been through a lot this past year. Some even spoke about losing team members while fighting on the frontlines of COVID. Yet, despite the battle and all of the pain, it was clear that these leaders have not lost their passion or their hope for a better future for healthcare. If anything, it was clear that their drive for change is more emboldened than ever.