One year of COVID: John Halamka reflects on how the pandemic spurred collaboration—and a lot of goat grooming

Mayo Clinic
The COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition is a private industry effort spearheaded by Mayo Clinic's John Halamka, M.D., and other industry leaders to leverage the strengths of healthcare organizations, technology companies, nonprofits, academia and startups to provide a focused response to the coronavirus outbreak. (Mayo Clinic)

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.

It was exactly one year ago, on March 15, while on a flight from Boston to Rochester, Minnesota, that health IT expert John Halamka, M.D., realized COVID-19 was going to drastically change life as we know it.

It was a Sunday, and Halamka, who lives outside Boston, was doing his typical "commute" to Minnesota to work on-site at the Mayo Clinic four days a week. Since taking the job of president of Mayo Clinic Platform in January 2020, Halamka would spend weekdays in Rochester and fly back on weekends to his family and his farm, Unity Farm Sanctuary, in Massachusetts.

"I was on a flight from Boston to Minnesota with 186 college students. When I showed up at the office, the chief medical officer at Mayo Clinic looked at me and said, 'That’s an interesting issue. You’re in a thin metal tube with a bunch of 20-year-olds, all doing spring break travel. This is probably not a great idea,'" Halamka told Fierce Healthcare. 

Like many executives, he then started working remotely, thinking it would last about six months. Halamka also is a practicing emergency room physician, a public policy expert and a Harvard University professor.

"We knew it was going to be a very significant event, but no one had a notion of the year that we’ve had," he said. 

RELATED: Mayo Clinic's Halamka: Telehealth boom slowing, but don't expect it to go back to pre-COVID rates

On that same day a year ago, Halamka, who leads the Mayo Clinic's digital health and artificial intelligence projects, said he received emails from tech colleagues at Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple asking how they could help with the COVID-19 response.

Building bridges

Out of those conversations came the formation of the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, a collaboration that includes Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Salesforce, Mitre, LabCorp, health IT vendor Epic and health systems Mayo Clinic, HCA Healthcare, Intermountain Healthcare and others.

Formed in late March, the coalition now includes 1,200 organizations and leverages the strengths of healthcare organizations, technology companies, nonprofits, academia and startups to provide a focused response to the coronavirus outbreak.

"Everyone agreed to basic rules, such as, everyone participates for the benefit of society, hegemony of none, we openly share our plans, no intellectual property restrictions and no legal agreements," Halamka said. "How many times in our industry’s history have you seen Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon come together and agree to all of that?"

John Halamka, M.D., with Wallace

The coalition built a rapid response to immediate crises like providing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, collected and shared valuable research on COVID-19 treatments and best practices and has released studies on the rapid growth of telehealth.

The organization also developed the infrastructure for analytics and information sharing and launched a public website with decision aid dashboards for the healthcare industry.

Mayo Clinic is part of another cross-industry collaboration that is working to create technology standards that will enable individuals to have digital access to their vaccination records.

RELATED: Mayo Clinic, Amazon, others launch collaboration to increase COVID-19 testing, vaccine development

The Vaccination Credential Initiative is developing a standard model for organizations administering COVID-19 vaccines to make credentials available in an accessible, interoperable, digital format. The effort focuses on using existing standards already in use in digital health programs, like the SMART Health Cards specification, which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources).

"I really think that this particular year has broken down competitive barriers where you have a tech industry unified in a single goal with a sense of urgency," he said. "That’s the thing that I'll remember. We’ve been around in this industry for a while and know how long it takes to get things done. We did in days what used to take months to years. We can’t lose that. Next time we have a big hairy, audacious problem to solve, let’s come together and get it done."

Halamka said he's confident that this spirit of collaboration represents a permanent shift that will last after the pandemic has subsided.

"Let me tell you why. We have a FHIR implementation guide and industry adoption across every sector moving forward in one way. With a framework for interoperability that is extensible and that is immediately adopted, I think we’re on a pretty good trajectory," he said.

The healthcare and tech industries now need to focus on how to use digital resources, technology and artificial intelligence to combat the next big health crisis, whether it's another pandemic, climate change or a natural disaster, he said.

"We need to think broadly about societal resilience and the situational awareness we’re going to need to deal with whatever comes next. We need to understand supply chain and staffing, who has what skills and where. How have we done this during the COVID pandemic? Through spreadsheets and email," he said.

"What we need is a situational awareness API (application programming interface) with an automated chatbot that could query data in real time. If we’re going to get to societal resilience, we better learn from the COVID experience on how to build those APIs, so we're ready to be agile and can have a more automated response for whatever comes next," he said.

RELATED: Microsoft, Epic, Mayo Clinic join effort to accelerate digital COVID-19 vaccine records

The uncertainty of this past year has driven stress and anxiety to historic proportions. As the founder of a nonprofit animal sanctuary, Halamka can unwind on his farm, surrounded by alpacas, miniature horses, cows and pigs. 

Halamaka and his wife, Kathy Halamka, founded the sanctuary in 2016 and it's now home to 250 animals as well as a working farm with 30 acres of agricultural production. (Check out the animal cams.)

During the pandemic, the farm also has provided solace to hundreds of stressed-out people.

"People are coming to Unity Farm Sanctuary to decompress. They will sit with a goat for an hour, groom a horse, or socialize a pig," he said, noting that after the presidential election, between November 2020 and January 2021, the number of people "coming to hug a goat and groom a sheep was at an all-time high."

"I thought we were running a sanctuary for the animals, but we're running a sanctuary for the community," he said.