One year of COVID: As scientific innovation went into overdrive, here's what happened at UnitedHealth Group

Editor's note: It's been a year since COVID-19 changed everything. We take a look back at some of the pandemic's biggest impacts.

Deenen Vojta was on spring break in Florida with her family as it became clear that COVID-19 was going to hit the United States in a big way.

Vojta, M.D., executive vice president for research and development at UnitedHealth Group, said that as the Trump administration rolled out early travel bans at the beginning of 2020, she decided to cut the vacation short and plan her return to Minneapolis to get to work. 

She is part of a research team at UHG which has rolled out a slew of projects over the past year in response to the pandemic, ranging from studies on COVID therapies to home health to protective equipment.

UnitedHealth Group's Deneen Vojta
Deneen Vojta, M.D. (UnitedHealth Group)

"I haven't worked this hard since I was an intern," Vojta told Fierce Healthcare in an interview. "But when you’re in R&D and you’re in the beginning, in the middle and hopefully the ending part of a pandemic…this is what we’ve trained for."

"It has been both exhilarating and exhausting," Vojta said.

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Conducting research on COVID-19 required the R&D team to rethink its processes to allow for greater flexibility and speed. Some projects in the pipeline were put on hold to allow the researchers to do pandemic-related work.

Vojta also said that with the need to be nimble, "bureaucracy went out the door." Smaller teams formed that were focused on specific projects and empowered to make decisions quickly.

"How we operated our teams began to change from an Army to a Navy SEAL team," she said.

One of the first pieces of research the team put out in the wake of COVID-19 arriving stateside examined the effectiveness of self-swab tests for the virus. If a medical professional was to conduct the swab, they required a full set of personal protective equipment, which grew scarce quickly at the beginning of the pandemic.

In addition, Vojta said, there was a lot of fear among clinicians about contracting the virus themselves by administering tests.

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An Optum physician came to the R&D team about this issue, and the researchers were able to quickly conduct and release data that shows self-swabs conducted by the patient were as effective as tests conducted by clinicians.

Vojta said that study is one she looks back on with particular pride.

"As a provider, as a physician, it was heartbreaking to see how panicked everybody was," she said. "This came to us from a provider in the OptumCare network, and when he called me I said, 'Oh my gosh, it’s brilliant.'"

"And it worked," she said. "In two weeks, we were able to do the study, report the results and get a change made that really helped people."

Vojta also highlighted UnitedHealth's Well at Home program, a pilot in which eligible Medicare Advantage members were offered a free kit that included a home COVID-19 test, a thermometer and Tamiflu in preparation for flu season. She said UnitedHealth Group screened 2 million people to potential participants in the program, and 400,000 agreed.

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The program was developed, she said, as data emerged about the high risk faced by seniors who contract both the flu and COVID; they had a 50% chance of dying when infected by both viruses.

Once patients experienced flu-like symptoms, which could be related to influenza or COVID-19, they were instructed to contact a Well at Home physician who could advise on the next steps, including taking a test or beginning to use the flu medication.

Vojta said that Tamiflu works faster the earlier it's taken, so having it available when symptoms crop up was a key way to avoid potentially dangerous flu cases in tandem with COVID. The home tests also provided UHG with critical data on infections, and the team found that 30% of participants who took the test were positive.

By contrast, national positive rates were about 10% to 15%. In addition to the findings of the pilot itself, Vojta said it was encouraging to see a significant number of seniors jump into a home health program like this.

"We really tapped into something there," she said.

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Beyond UnitedHealth Group's work, the pandemic rapidly accelerated the rate of scientific innovation, and experts have said they believe that could play a key role in chipping away at public distrust in science.

Vojta said she is hopeful it could have a particularly beneficial effect on underserved and minority communities, which have been traditionally underrepresented in research and clinical study. She said it's critical for a diverse set of voices to have a seat at the table in planning future innovation.

The pandemic also shined a greater light on health disparities, which she believes will have a lasting impact on the industry.

"This pandemic showed us the interplay between health, finances and social structures," Vojta said. "It was so disconcerting that it will, in a very positive way, force us all to look at the way we’ve always done business and think about, 'How did that happen?'"