The pandemic created this ‘permanent’ improvement in medicine: health care CEO

Zoom weddings, outdoor dining in the depths of winter, foregoing shows and concerts altogether — these pandemic-driven trends likely won’t endure, at least beyond a few devoted outliers.

But a high-stakes medical trend that could save lives and cut costs will persist well-after the COVID pandemic, says Jonathan Bush, the CEO of a health care startup called Zus Health. The explosion of telemedicine during the pandemic brought a “permanent” improvement in the acquisition and sorting of medical data that could affect treatment for the vast majority of ailments, Bush told Yahoo Finance in a new interview.

Electronic communication between a patient and physician affords an immense opportunity for detailed, actionable data, Bush said.

“The idea of messaging a care team or a provider is actually better documentation than even the most granular set of drop-down menus in an electronic medical record,” Bush said. “Because we’ve gotten good at machine reading language and looking for patterns.”

“Getting all that chatter back and forth over a long period of time, particularly on the 80% of our health care that is behaviorally rooted disease,” he said. “That chatter being machine readable, as opposed to lost to history between you and your doctor as you sit there naked on the wax paper — that improvement is permanent.”

For decades, hospitals recorded patient information on paper records that proved difficult for retaining an individual’s medical details and sharing them with other doctors.

In 2009, as part of the economic stimulus signed by then-President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the HITECH Act encouraged hospitals to keep electronic medical records and uptake increased significantly.

Nearly 90% of hospitals record patient information on electronic records, according to a Centers for Disease Control study in 2019.

But the explosion of telemedicine during the pandemic expands the potential to record patient data, since a significant portion of interaction between patient and physician occurs online, Bush said.

The use of telemedicine increased dramatically during the pandemic. In 2020, the share of medicare visits conducted through telemedicine jumped 63-fold, from about 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million the following year, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

By February 2021, telemedicine appointments had leveled off but still accounted for a share of U.S. insurance claims 38 times larger than it had pre-pandemic, a McKinsey & Company report found.

The uptick in virtual doctor’s appointments revealed that much of the patient-physician relationship can be conducted online more effectively and at reduced cost, said Bush, who chairs the board of health delivery and insurance company Firefly Health.

In this Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 photo, Dr. Terry Rabinowitz, right, talks with nurse Leslie Orelup at Helen Porter Nursing Home in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

“It’s absolutely the case that the percentage of stuff that can be done as well or actually better — significantly better at any price — turns out to be much cheaper,” he said. “It has exploded.”

To be sure, some exams and treatments need to take place in person, Bush said.

Many people in the U.S. delayed or forwent surgeries during the pandemic. Researchers at Stanford University found a 48% decrease in the number of surgeries performed across the U.S. during the seven weeks after mid-March 2020, when compared with the same period in 2019.

But by the end of 2020, the number of surgeries stood just 10% below 2019 levels. the researchers found.

“There are surgeries that we’ve put off,” Bush said. “‘My hip hurts, I want to get a new one’ or whatever … There’s some stuff that of course has to go back.”

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