The COVID-19 pandemic has had unpredictable impacts on the healthcare industry.
What many industry stakeholders had not counted on was the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies during the health crisis.
Just as the events on September 11, 2001 led to accelerated adoption of technology for national security operations, the current health crisis has quickly brought down technology barriers for health systems, Sean Lane, the CEO of AI startup Olive said during a Fierce AI Week virtual event this week.
"The pandemic is a massive enough event that we will see accelerated adoption of tech and the moment we’ve been waiting for in healthcare to really embrace a future that is Internet-like and changes the perception of what’s necessary," he said.
During the session, technology executives discussed the partnerships being formed between big tech giants, creative startups and health systems to advance AI in healthcare and why these collaborations become even more critical during the health crisis.
Back in March, Olive, along with other startups, couldn't predict the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their businesses. Being cautious, the company prepared for a situation where they would see no new bookings or sales for the next 18 months.
But in fact, demand for Olive's AI-enabled robotic process automation solution has grown in the past five months.
"We did see a very surprising response from the market so far," Lane said. "Our customers are relying on a lot of humans coming in and sitting in a chair everyday to process these 'keep-the-lights-on' critical tasks. When that was disrupted that built an enormous backlog."
Olive's technology, what Lane calls an "AI workforce" helped to tackle that problem.
"Our customers have created these financial recovery plans and Olive is often a part of that. From a business perspective, nothing slowed down, it’s sped up," he said.
The University of California Health System has been partnering with Olive for the past year to use its AI technology for revenue cycle tasks like claims management.
Prior to the pandemic, it was difficult to get staff on board with new technology adoption and changes to workflow and processes, said Jennifer Lehmann, system director of revenue cycle at University of California Health System.
"The pandemic hit, and there you go. We have to change the way we do things," Lehmann said. "Our folks have rallied and gotten creative with problem solving. And that applies to technology and automation in general. We are more open and receptive to different solutions and onboard with the fact that change is necessary."
Suki CEO Punit Singh Soni also has seen increased interest in the company's voice-enabled, AI-powered clinical digital assistant amid the health crisis.
Large health systems are facing intense margin pressures now with declining revenues from the significant drop in elective procedures and patient volume, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic also has exacerbated clinician burnout and health systems are looking to deploy AI tools like Suki to help with tedious documentation tasks.
"We're seeing interest from health system purely from a physician wellbeing perspective," he said.
The health crisis also has accelerated technology collaborations among different industry stakeholders, according to panelist Aashima Gupta, director of global healthcare solutions at Google Cloud.
"COVID created a sense of urgency and gave people the purpose to align. The technology has been there for several years. What we lacked was the sense of purpose and that culture change of collaboration," she said.
Google Cloud mobilized quickly to work with health systems on data-driven initiatives to help combat the pandemic.
The tech giant worked with HCA Healthcare and SADA Systems to open up a COVID-19 data portal that pools hospital metrics on ICU beds, testing results and patient visits.
"We developed that within a matter of weeks," she said, noting that prior to the health crisis the same initiative would typically take six to nine months to pull together.
Google Cloud also works with a number of startups and healthcare companies, including Suki, which uses Google’s advanced AI and machine learning technologies to powers it digital clinical assistant.
"Collaboration is very important. No one company can do it alone. I hope that's one of the lessons learned. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for the industry to work together," she said.
Gupta believes that the accelerated pace of innovation will continue after the COVID-19 pandemic has abated.
"Long-term bets are being made. No one knows the future, but one thing is clear: Digital is here to stay, telehealth is here to stay. New innovation will come in and make the telehealth experience much richer," she said.