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The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked unprecedented collaboration throughout the health care community. Clinicians, researchers, senior executives, investors, and others are sharing insights and working together to treat patients, contain the virus, and mitigate its impact.

That was the theme of the 2020 World Medical Innovation Forum (WMIF), which was conducted in a virtual format due to distancing restrictions. Nevertheless, said Mass General Brigham Chief Clinical Officer Gregg Meyer, MD, “it was the biggest audience we ever had, as well as the most diverse.” The forum drew 11,000 registrants representing 3,200 organizations from 47 states and 95 countries.

In an ongoing survey, participants shared their views on how Covid-19 is affecting health care today and might also shape the future. Optimism about potential positive developments, such as a sustained role for telemedicine and the rollback and compression of regulatory processes for advancing new therapeutics and vaccines, was offset by less favorable views on the pandemic’s possible long-term impact on society.

“Seeing the breadth of disciplines all focused on a single problem was really powerful,” Dr. Meyer said. “Hearing what each is doing — pharma executives, venture capital folks, data scientists, frontline innovators — reinforced that notion of, ‘Frankly, this is a problem that none of us on our own can solve, so we’re all in this together.'”

The themes of innovation, collaboration, and adaptation emerged during the opening remarks and were revisited throughout the day. 

Innovation

Covid-19 has prompted many “building the plane while flying” moments from both technical and operational standpoints, including these:

Technical innovation: The need to keep Covid-19 patients isolated, combined with a shortage of PPE, has posed one of the biggest technical challenges during the pandemic. To enable nurses and clinicians to communicate with patients remotely, Brigham Health staff devised a “video intercom” system using iPads in patients’ rooms and at the nurses’ station. That approach has enabled staff to preserve the “blunt tools” vital to treating Covid-19, such as masks and gowns, and to bridge the gaps in patient interaction.

“This also helped with our ability to communicate with each other without having to go in and out of the room,” said Karen Reilly, DNP, RN, chief nursing officer and senior vice president of clinical services at Brigham Health.

Other emerging technologies that have proved “indispensable,” in the words of Massachusetts General Hospital Medical Director for Emergency Preparedness Paul Biddinger, MD, are “the ones that remove the manual effort and [gather] a lot of details so that we can quickly aggregate data, share data, and help people respond better by understanding the complexities of the disease.”

Collaboration

The urgent response to Covid-19 has led to remarkable levels of collaboration within the health care industry and beyond.

Within the traditional health care infrastructure: As Dr. Biddinger noted, the pandemic has demonstrated that “it’s really important that we have technology to share information, especially trying to lead a hospital emergency management program. And we have to be able to share this not just across one hospital or one hospital system, but across the health care network.”

Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, chief of infectious disease at Mass General, added that Covid-19 has highlighted the benefits of engaging patients using a more collaborative approach. Some patients who tested positive for Covid-19, for example, conducted self-monitoring at home using pulse oximeters.

Outside the usual health care infrastructure: There was a consensus that enabling patients to conduct many diagnostic tests on their own (similar to home pregnancy tests) could reduce logjams in the health care system. Representatives from various nonmedical companies weighed in on how they could help implement delivery systems and scale them for widespread use.

“A lot of large tech companies, like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, play the role that in other countries is formed by the public health infrastructure,” said Marcus Osborne, VP at Walmart Health. “And we can play that role because of the access we have. That access is enormous, and I think that puts us in a unique position to have an impact.”

In addition, members of the medical investment community stressed the importance of maintaining the collaborative atmosphere that’s typical in the research sector. “That’s where a lot of the talent is — in those labs, talking to each other,” said Phillip Gross, managing director at Adage Capital Management.

Adaptation

A majority of attendees believe it will be at least two years, if ever, before society functions as it did before Covid-19. Necessary adaptations in health care will include anticipating emergency response situations where social distancing isn’t possible, such as mass evacuations during hurricanes, and focusing on tele-rehabilitation and telehealth to reduce risk in long-term care facilities.

Mass General Brigham EVP and CFO Peter Markell and Thermo Fisher Scientific CEO Marc Casper addressed some of these challenges during an informal “fireside chat.” Their insights included the following:

Reassuring staff: “I think the biggest issue we’re going to face in general is, how do we make people feel safe?” Markell said. Casper agreed, noting that “testing is going to play a significant role until we have a vaccine or widely available therapies. That’s an important part of the dialogue around how you get from shelter-in-place to a return-to-work environment.”

Strengthening supply chains: “I think we’ll be talking about supply chain robustness for the foreseeable future,” Casper said. “We’re going through that ourselves [at Thermo Fisher], making sure that we continue to have really strong second sources, multiple-country sources. … Governments are going to need to focus on stockpiling as well, because no matter how good a strategy is at [a particular] institution, there are always going to be some who don’t do a great job or don’t have the financial wherewithal.”

The arrival of telemedicine: “People have gotten comfortable with telemedicine because of the situation we’ve been in, and I think that will be a positive in terms of the impact on society,” Casper said.

Maintaining Focus Moving Forward

The reason for the singular focus of this year’s WMIF was starkly apparent. As Mass General Brigham CEO Anne Klibanski put it, “No collaborative endeavor is more pressing or critically important right now than responding to this Covid-19 pandemic.”