Healthcare in the "New Normal" - Greater Baltimore's Digital Health Industry
The global spread of COVID-19 and the resulting pandemic has impacted our economy and our daily lives in ways that no one could predict, and will continue to do so until an effective vaccine comes to market and the disease can be eradicated. The way we go about our daily lives has had to change significantly to adapt to restrictions imposed by local and state government to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and the restrictions we impose on ourselves to keep our families safe. These changes run the gamut from how we work (remotely), how we learn and educate (online distant learning), how we socialize (in ‘pods,’ outdoors, masked and socially distant), how we purchase goods (e-commerce and home delivery), and how we access healthcare (telemedicine.)
Many of these changes were suddenly thrust upon us due to the rapid acceleration of the pandemic, but the ways in which we have adapted over the past eight or so months may remain and will determine to varying degrees what the "new normal" post-pandemic will look like. This is particularly true with healthcare, where technology and innovation are moving healthcare firmly into the digital world and catalyzing the growth of the "digital health" industry.
Innovative technologies are reshaping how we interact with health professionals, how data is stored and shared among providers, and how treatment decisions are made and tracked. From mobile medical apps and software that support the clinical decisions doctors make every day to artificial intelligence and machine learning, digital technology and digital health tools have the vast potential to improve our ability to accurately diagnose and treat disease and to enhance the delivery of health care for the individual.
Greater Baltimore is uniquely positioned to become a hub of digital health innovation with its excellent and robust healthcare networks and the wealth of higher education institutions that are producing a technologically skilled workforce. These assets do not exist in a silo, they are integrated, interactive, and synergistic – resulting in a growing ecosystem of research and innovation that supports and catalyzes the growth industry sectors in the Region.
The ecosystem to support the growth of digital health innovation highlights the synergy between the private and public sector stakeholders in healthcare. While the Region’s assets supporting the growth of digital health are many, this article will discuss several organizations with a long-standing commitment to the development and application of digital technology to improve health outcomes.
The innovation and investment arm of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst), Healthworx is partnering with LifeBridge Health to launch “1501 Health,” an incubation program that will foster the growth of startup companies developing software, devices, and systems with the potential to help solve healthcare’s biggest challenges and increase positive health and wellness outcomes.
“This program isn’t just about the physical collaboration space, it’s about the payer and provider partnership that adds value to startups as they look to integrate into complex systems,” said Healthworx Program Manager Emily Durfee. “This incubator is one component of Healthworx’ s mission to develop a community and ecosystem around early-stage entrepreneurship that improves health care access, positively impacts patient outcomes, and reduces the total cost of care.”
1501 Health will work focus on early start-ups, usually in the pre-seed and seed stages, and will support those companies in three key pillars: Capital, Community, and Customers. The program will help founders identify the challenges to their business, and unblock their businesses through deep health systems expertise, investor and other start-up networks, potential customer introductions, and the internal resources and knowledge of each team. In doing so, Healthworx and LifeBridge Health will leverage their internal resources and expertise to support the rapid evolution and growth of innovative healthcare companies.
The program will launch virtually in early 2021, but start-ups will have coworking and collaboration space in CareFirst’s Canton headquarters once it is safe to return to in-person interactions.
This philosophy is echoed by Pothik Chatterjee, Executive Director of Innovation and Research at LifeBridge Health: “Our focus on innovation is a critical component of LifeBridge Health’s ongoing dedication to improving the delivery of care throughout the Greater Baltimore Region, and the considerable value of collaborating with the private sector to achieve our mutual goals in the healthcare arena is evident in our partnership with CareFirst.”
As with Carefirst’s Healthworx, 1501 Health is one component of LifeBridge Health’s dedication to innovation not only in the area of digital health, but also in biotechnology with the Bioincubator located at Sinai Hospital – Maryland’s only hospital-based Bioincubator.
As defined by the American Nurses Association, nursing informatics “integrates nursing science, computer science, and information science to manage and communicate data, information, knowledge, and wisdom in nursing practice.” UMSON educates its nursing informatics students to be the connection between patient care and technology, utilizing big data and developing, implementing and evaluating health IT to improve patient outcomes.
“We established the first master’s degree program in informatics in the world in 1989, and we were the first to establish the doctoral degree in nursing informatics program in 1991,” stated Dr. Mary Mills, a UMSON professor in the program. Today, with the increasing importance and acceptance of telehealth and telemedicine as part of the delivery of care continuum and financial/economic factors that challenge healthcare providers and payors to be more effective and cost efficient, the value of such informatics programs can’t be overstated. So too is the value of relationships between academia and the private sector, particularly with the innovators developing health IT tools to improve healthcare.
The increased application of technology to delivery of care can also help address issues of access to care, particularly in disadvantaged communities. Dr. Eun-Shim Nahm, UMSON professor and director of the Nursing Informatics program, stated, “The disparity in delivery of healthcare is a major challenge in Baltimore and an issue that our program is increasingly focused on. With the ability to use a smart phone to access care providers, it is incumbent that we develop the mechanisms to reach communities impacted by lack of access to care and teach them how to connect, literally and figuratively, with healthcare resources using their phones.”
The ability to continue to grow a robust ecosystem to support digital health requires increased collaboration and partnerships with the private sector to provide business support and consulting services for emerging companies and, most importantly, to provide the capital investment needed to support the R&D underway. Johns Hopkins recognized the importance of growing this industry sector in the region and created the Chesapeake Digital Health Exchange, (CDHx) a partnership between Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures and the Johns Hopkins Technology Innovation Center. They were successful in securing a $1.3M three-year grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help create connections and partnerships among emerging digital health companies, investors, private sector partners and healthcare providers.
Now almost one year into the program, CDHx’s Director, Mark Komisky, stated, “Our initial focus has been to build awareness of ‘digital health’ as an important industry sector that has great potential for growth in this region, and throughout Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia. As we identify opportunities with start-ups and early stage companies, our role will be to work with our partner network to help define needs and build bridges to customers, interested investors and strategic partners that will advance their innovations and help our startups gain traction faster and go farther.”
Success in growing the digital health industry and its supportive community in Greater Baltimore will require a fully engaged ecosystem to include healthcare systems, hospitals, and, eventually, large pharmaceutical companies who are increasingly interested in working with – if not acquiring – emerging digital health companies. In this world of a "new normal," the Region couldn’t be better positioned to advance the industry and positively influence healthcare for decades to come.