Over the past week, President Trump and his administration have made statements and taken other actions that show they increasingly recognize the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic — and are counting on health tech, and especially telemedicine, to help save the country.
But can the technology meet the demands of this extraordinary moment? How the health tech community performs in this crisis could instantly and dramatically advance the industry — and shape how medical care gets delivered for years to come.
Success is far from guaranteed. The industry is being asked to rise to an occasion for which it is not prepared. As more and more worried Americans flock to their phones and computers with concerns about symptoms resembling Covid-19 — as well as for other ailments — telehealth providers are facing concerns that they are not equipped to handle the sudden and explosive growth of interest in their services.
In the past few days, the White House has introduced a flurry of regulatory changes that show how much faith it’s putting in telehealth: Telehealth services are being expanded for Medicare patients, allowing them to use online tools like FaceTime and Skype to visit any doctor by phone or videoconference at no additional cost. Elements of the health privacy law HIPAA that, until now, prevented clinicians from doing visits this way will no longer be enforced. And providers will no longer have to be licensed in the state where they are providing services, easing the way for telehealth offerings across state lines.
In a Rose Garden press conference on Friday afternoon, Trump called telehealth “a fairly new and incredible thing that’s happened in the — in the not-so-distant past.” He marveled: “I tell you, what they’ve done with telehealth is incredible.”
Trump has also made clear that he is leaning heavily on big tech companies in the fight against the coronavirus.
Executives from Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon — all of which have been building out health businesses in recent months — joined a federal task force to fight the virus, attending an hourlong meeting with White House officials on Friday. At another White House meeting on Sunday on the topic of telehealth and disease mapping, first reported by the Washington Post, tech giants were represented, as was the telemedicine startup Ro.
In his Friday remarks, Trump talked up a new website that “Google” was developing to triage Americans who might have Covid-19 and direct them to mobile coronavirus testing facilities. In fact, Google soon clarified, Alphabet’s life sciences unit Verily was developing a tool meant, for now, to have much more limited reach. Verily scrambled over the weekend to get the tool up and running, and it launched on Monday, for residents in two counties in Silicon Valley. (On Monday, the first day the program was open, about 20 people got tested.)
And on Monday, the White House issued a “call to action” to the nation’s artificial intelligence experts, lending its megaphone to encourage machine-learning researchers to dig into a new open dataset of 29,000 scientific articles about the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes. The dataset was built as part of a collaboration of organizations including Microsoft and the philanthropic groups launched by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
All of this represents a startling turn of events. In the past, Big Tech has not exactly been Trump’s friend. Trump regularly uses his Twitter account to take jabs at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In the 2016 election, Silicon Valley tech employees almost uniformly donated to Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Health tech’s lightning-fast elevation into the spotlight this week has been years in the making. Telehealth’s boosters in Washington, D.C., have long been pushing for the elimination of strict regulations such as the ones discouraging people from using FaceTime for virtual visits with their doctor. Those lobbyists and advocates cited reduced cost and greater convenience — not the crisis created by a pandemic.
A big question is whether the new changes will stick — and make telehealth the default for certain clinical interactions. In the coming weeks, many people — including both clinicians and patients — will use telehealth (as well as tools like Verily’s) for the first time.
If they like the experience, and wonder why they weren’t doing it all along, it’s hard to imagine a return to the heavy regulation that was the norm at the start of this month.