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Healthcare ‘time capsule’ chronicles technology progress


Remembering the experiences of a legacy of medical professionals raises sharp contrasts between healthcare experiences from the past and the whirlwind of changes underway due to COVID.

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Since childhood, I have been surrounded by healthcare’s essential frontline workers. My grandfather, grandmother, and father all dedicated their lives to caring for their local communities as doctors and nurses. Looking back, they weren’t known as essential workers then, but they definitely provided essential services as they made house calls, launched hospitals in underserved communities, and broke through early barriers of nursing care in the 1930s. 

Having a healthcare heritage makes me especially attuned to COVID-19’s impact on medical care. The pace of change is happening so fast that it makes my memories feel increasingly nostalgic. What we’re seeing across the globe are success stories of technologies enabling rapid development and deployment of life-saving solutions. Advancements in analytics, data management, cloud, and raw processing speed are tipping the scale toward us getting ahead of COVID’s spread. While my relatives experienced their own personal wins, technology gives us an advantage to beat back a worldwide pandemic.

Trading paper notes for dashboards of data

As a child, I helped my Dad fill bottles with his patients’ medications. All the instructions were paper-based, and we worked together slowly and methodically moving from one patient and prescription to the next. Even years later while I was in college, my Dad’s practice was still paper based.

The small data sets he noted in his patient records are a tremendous contrast to the huge data sets that doctors have available today to treat patients and combat fast-spreading diseases like COVID-19. At Dallas-based Parkland Health and Hospital System, for example, physicians rely on real-time data streams to help care for more than 240,000 ER patients each year. Data modeled in a digital platform stands by all day, every day, ready to help improve patient care and outcomes.

When COVID arrived in the surrounding area, Parkland quickly began putting its internal data from SharePoint, flat files, and healthcare records to work to prepare the hospital staff for the efficient intake of COVID patients. With COVID, Parkland realized that internal data alone was not enough. They needed to include the latest data from external sources to understand COVID’s impact on the region’s residents. The combined data sets helped the staff understand ER volume, arrivals, lab testing, patient symptoms, staffing, hotspots, and more. They can also track critical inventory like masks, gloves, and other Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).

The staff has actionable data that helps them make decisions and visualize COVID’s impact on the healthcare system and physician’s practices alike. The combination of analytics, data management, cloud computing, and fast processing speeds allows Parkland to interact with huge volumes of data and visualize it in real time. What a doctor sees in those real-time streams of data and predictive analytics is leagues beyond what my dad kept in his notes. The knowledge and learnings that Parkland gained will easily translate to other treatments and hopefully encourage more sharing of data that will contribute to a much healthier and safer population.

Supply chain community delivers 500 beds in a single week

Looking back at the polio outbreaks in the 1940s and 1950s, hospitals created separate wards to treat the patients and protect others from infection. They also set up temporary sites for overflow patients. Across the United States in 2020, cities and municipalities are raising similar pop-up sites to handle COVID patient surges. Both then and now, the success for temporary sites rests on how well people can tap into their supply chains and network of contacts. The nation witnessed the strengths and weaknesses of the healthcare supply chain in many ways throughout the COVID pandemic. In one particular example, there was a dire need for hospital beds for a temporary hospital outside New York. Here’s what happened. A supply chain executive got a text from the CIO at Ram Tool and Supply, a construction supply distribution company helping to set up a temporary hospital outside New York.

The CIO needed to locate 500 hospital beds as fast as possible. In a leap of faith, the supply chain executive jumped onto a digital marketplace for buyers and sellers of business goods, to see if such a thing was even possible. He typed in hospital beds, hit search and Joerns Healthcare, a medical equipment supplier popped up. In an unexpected twist, Joerns is also a client that his team served.

Joerns and Ram Tool were connected with one another and in less than a week, the hospital beds arrived on site. The whole story from start to finish is extraordinary—proof of technology’s impact. Supply chain technology with embedded analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and automation made it possible to quickly source exactly what the hospitals and staffs needed when they needed it most.

Apps break away from phone tree pack

In one more example of “then versus now”, I remember mumps and chicken pox spreading among my middle school classmates in short bursts and parents calling each other with updates. Today’s alternative to the phone tree is contact tracing apps. 

In another testament to stunningly fast response times, the German government launched Corona Warn app in mid-June and it has more than 18 million downloads in mid-September. The app helps trace infection chains of COVID-19 in Germany, notifying users if they have been at risk of having been exposed to the viru

The teams developed the app in only 50 days, sharing the code with more than 109,000 visitors and gaining participation from more than 7,200 open source community and project members. It is the largest open source project ever implemented in Germany on behalf of the German government. While contact tracing has its critics, this team was diligent to not require any personal data from the users, such as name, age, address, or location.

Smart development tools, encryption, and the cloud, placed a contact-tracing app into German pockets that is playing a crucial role in containing outbreaks and preventing the spread of the virus throughout Germany. Containing the virus has been an international effort and global industry partnerships to develop topline software and technologies are leading the way.

Optimizing healthcare through technology

Technology is helping frontline, essential workers close the head start that COVID has held over us for months. With each success, healthcare leaders pour more confidence into databases, analytics, and intelligent technologies, making room for more positive developments.

I expect that when today’s younger generation looks back at these times, they will see a clear demarcation of the healthcare they experienced before COVID and the rapid changes that developed after COVID. What I hope they see as remaining the same, just as I do when comparing the past to now, is the deep connection that caregivers have for their patients. We are incredibly thankful for the human touch and kindness that essential workers from our past and present provide whenever we’re feeling at risk and vulnerable.

About the Author

Matthew Laukaitis is Executive Vice President and Global General Manager Consumer Industries at SAP, the market leader in enterprise application software, helping companies of all sizes and in all industries run at their best.

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