For all the progress on Covid-19, we are still far from a post-pandemic world.
“If you’re living on Planet Earth, I assure you the pandemic is not over,” Geeta Nayyar, executive medical director of Salesforce, said at the 2021 STAT Health Tech summit on Tuesday. “India and Brazil are great examples of the forest still being on fire. When we don’t go to help our fellow global neighbors, we can rest assured that the fire is spreading.”
Everyone has an obligation to help, but tech companies in particular can have a huge, international impact on the response to Covid-19, she said. Together with Vin Gupta, chief medical officer for Amazon’s Covid-19 response, Nayyar outlined how health tech is well-suited to pitch in on the pandemic response, and also pointed to areas where the industry has to step back.
How tech can help
Delivering oxygen where it’s needed most
Last month, it took Amazon just 48 hours to partner with Air India and oxygen vendor Temasek to send 10,000 oxygen canisters to Maharashtra State and New Delhi, India. The speed of this response — especially compared to Gupta’s own public sector background working in the military — was striking. “It’s amazing to see how nimbleness and the ability to respond quickly can mitigate the loss of life immediately, when initially our government was still trying to wrap around what kind of message they wanted to get out,” said Gupta.
Keeping care at home
The more people can be treated at home, the more hospitals can preserve resources that are already stretched thin. “If you can stay healthy in your home, that’s always the goal,” said Nayyar. “We’re seeing the power of telemedicine, the power of being able to get a physician, a nurse, some clinical expert to connect with family members in the home.” The crisis accelerated telehealth innovation, which has helped increase capacity throughout the healthcare system, she said.
Gupta agreed the shifts seen in virtual care are unlikely to subside once the pandemic ends. “What happens after this crisis? Behaviors are changing. People are going to want to consume more of their health care, as much as they can, not in brick-and-mortar settings. They don’t need that face-to-face interaction and can get high quality tests at home.”
“There’s a huge shift happening in how we consume health care,” said Gupta. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that.”
Coordinating operations and logistics
Gupta said that Amazon is well-positioned to deliver medical supplies such as thermometers throughout India. “If you’re talking about middle and last mile delivery of critical supplies, we’re able to move that because… Amazon is ultimately founded on operations and logistics.”
The company has a large workforce in India, which helps it respond at scale. “We have links throughout civil society, throughout government,” said Gupta. “That presence means something and we’re part of the fabric of society in India. We have a sense of what they need.”
Where tech still falls short
Building trust for vaccine passports
There could be a way to create vaccine bubbles and safety certifications for small and medium businesses or even large stadiums, said Gupta.
But while technological capabilities are there, public confidence isn’t: “We can’t even have the conversation of a tech forward approach to a vaccine bubble, because immediately people think it’s going to be misused—we can’t trust that,” he said. “That trust piece really needs to be tackled.”
Ensuring access to virtual care
Early in the pandemic, Gupta said Amazon worked with the Gates foundation to deliver Covid-19 tests in pandemic. But patients needed a smartphone and to speak with a provider face-to-face virtually to request a test.
“That means the majority of people who’ve been impacted by this pandemic, who are below the poverty line and couldn’t afford a smartphone, couldn’t access telehealth services,” said Gupta. “The regulatory environment wasn’t keeping pace with the change in technological innovation.” That changed a few months later, but regulation still lags. “Innovation will always go faster than the regulation,” said Nayyar.
Though tech is better placed to help in some areas that others, Nayyar emphasized that the need for a corporate response won’t abate until the pandemic is over globally. “If a forest is on fire, it doesn’t matter where in the forest, we are all in that forest, and the only way we’re going to get out of it is to soak the fire everywhere we can,” she said. “There’s always going to be bureaucracy and barriers.. If it’s not over for everyone on the planet, it will not be over for us here in the western hemisphere.”