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To say that Dr. Brad Younggren has a unique perspective on COVID-19 would be an understatement — because he actually has multiple perspectives.
Dr. Younggren is the chief medical officer at Seattle-based healthcare startup 98point6, which has seen interest in its on-demand virtual care service skyrocket amid the pandemic. He’s also an emergency physician, and the medical director for emergency preparedness, at EvergreenHealth Medical Center, in Kirkland, Wash., the first hospital in the country to get an influx of COVID-19 patients earlier this year.
And he has been on the front lines before, literally, as a former U.S. Army physician who earned a Bronze Star and the Combat Medic Badge for his service in Iraq.
So it was with a sense of hope and cautious optimism that he received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine last week, along with his Evergreen colleagues.
“It’s been an intense year, working through this massive growth at 98point6, and seeing how we can support the country at scale,” he said. “Then the individual work, taking care of patients at Evergreen, has definitely been tasking at times. It’s been an emotional experience just to see the light at the end of the tunnel — that sense of hope that comes from interval change in how we’re managing this pandemic.”
With cases surging in the U.S., Younggren and his colleagues are careful to note that we’re not out of the woods yet. But even when the world can put the pandemic into the history books, COVID-19’s impact on the science and technology of healthcare will endure.
Younggren drew parallels between his time serving in the military and the past year in the pandemic, in terms of its impact on people working in healthcare.
There’s a “battle rhythm you develop, because you’re basically on all the time, and there’s a level of fatigue that comes from that kind of work,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot written about the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare worker, and not just the physicians, but also the nurses and the janitors and the people who are cleaning the rooms. It’s impacting the entire healthcare system. These are very stressful times from that perspective.”
Younggren reflects on the past year, and talks about what’s next, on this episode of GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast. Listen above, subscribe in any podcast app, and keep reading for edited highlights.
Q: With your background, the lens through which you’re viewing this pandemic, and the impact of COVID-19, must be very different from many other people. How would you assess what’s happened over the past year?
Dr. Brad Younggren: It’s been interesting. I’m fortunate to sit on a committee called the Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which is a group of about 20 physicians that support Department of Health for the state of Washington, specifically focused around pandemic response. So it’s a different approach which has given me an interesting perspective to see, as these state-level issues are coming in: how do we deal with Remdesivir distribution, how do we make sure it’s ethical, how do we make sure that the state gets monoclonal antibodies distributed? These kinds of issues. So it’s another aspect of what I’ve been really focused on in the last year.
It’s been interesting to see how technology in general is playing a role in how we approach this, really all across the board, from software technologies that are helping us track patients better to the technology that has gone into the development of these vaccines. Taking something that would take multi-billion dollars a year, and typically 20 years of research, and really de-risking it for the pharmaceutical industry in an effort to speed up how fast we could try vaccines in Phase II and Phase III trials.
We’ve also been seeing how the technology we’ve been building at 98point6 can play a role as it relates to pandemic response. As an example, we’ve had a relationship with HHS BARDA, the same organization that’s done a lot of the funding for the vaccine development, and we are really one of the few software companies that has an ongoing project with them. We had one with influenza, where we were using our data to understand where we were seeing hot spots of influenza, and now we’re actually doing some COVID work, as well, along the same vein. We have a 24/7 national platform running all the time which allows us to use natural language processing and AI to pull the data out to understand where can we see hot pockets of people getting sick.
So I’ve been layering the technology in with some of the real clinical experiences I’ve had as an emergency physician, and as director of preparedness, and bringing that stuff together in a way that, unfortunately, has been the focus for the last year. But there’s some really interesting things that are coming out of that, that I think will impact how we approach these kinds of pandemics or disasters in the years to come.
Q: Would you have ever imagined that you’d be getting a vaccine less than a year since you first started treating patients with this disease?
Dr. Younggren: I did not have that kind of hope. I really thought it was going to take longer based on what we’ve ever seen in the past. It was just an amazing feat of science that will go down historically for many, many years. Although previously proven in very limited scale, through Zika and Ebola, the mRNA approach was really untested. So this is an encouraging way that we could approach vaccination in the future. That’s a whole new branch of science, and hopefully will have a lot of benefit for other kinds of disease processes that we endure as human beings.
Q: There have been so many things that have changed as a result of COVID-19. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen, particularly from a technology standpoint, and how enduring do you expect them to be?
Dr. Younggren: Virtual care’s acceptance and growth has accelerated massively over the last 10 months. Many health systems that weren’t really doing virtual care for primary care subspecialty visits were, overnight, forced to shift their entire book of business, all their visits, to a virtual care platform.
So we learned very quickly how fast we could do that. And I think one thing we’ve known for years now is that patients love engaging on our platform, and they love engaging in technology if it makes their lives easier. They want to engage in health care in the same way that they do everything else in their lives — on demand, when it’s convenient and in a trusted format.
We know that those changes will be enduring. Patients will not want to have to go to the hospital and be exposed to unnecessary illness, if they could do a virtual visit. Certainly it is not the answer for all needs in healthcare, and I’m the first one to acknowledge that. … But these whole loops and cycles will change the way people think about accessing healthcare.
Premera Blue Cross, a not-for-profit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association based in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., is a leading health plan in the Pacific Northwest, providing comprehensive health benefits and tailored services to approximately 2 million people, from individuals to Fortune 100 companies. Learn more how Premera is innovating in health care at premera.com/innovation
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News – A view from the front lines: COVID-19’s lasting impact on the technology and science of healthcare