As the pandemic turns endemic, healthcare providers have been eagerly urging patients to return to their offices to enjoy the benefits of in-person care.
The last two years have forced all sorts of organizations to be nimble, adaptable and creative in how they work, and this includes healthcare providers’ efforts to maintain continuity of care under the most challenging of conditions. So before we go back to “business as usual,” don’t we owe it to those providers and ourselves to admit that business as usual did not work for most of the people the industry exists to help? If we’re going to embrace yet another period of change – periods that don’t happen often in our complex industry – shouldn’t we first stop and ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve?
Certainly, COVID has shown that telehealth can be an invaluable tool, particularly for patients in rural and underserved communities that lack access to specialty care. It’s also become clear that many – though not all – healthcare encounters can be effectively conducted from afar. That said, the telehealth tactics that filled the gap during the pandemic were largely stitched together substitutes for existing visit-based workflows: with offices closed, patients scheduled video visits for help managing the side effects of their blood pressure medications or to see their endocrinologist for a quarterly check-in. Anyone whose children slogged through the last year or two of remote learning can tell you that simply virtualizing existing processes doesn’t necessarily improve the experience or the outcomes!
But what if our approach to post-pandemic healthcare came from a patient-driven perspective? We have a fleeting opportunity to advance a care model centered on convenient and equitable access that first prioritizes good outcomes, then selects approaches to care – and locations – tailored to each patient. Using the example of education, imagine how effective it would be if each student, regardless of their school district and aptitude, received such individualized attention.
That’s the idea behind virtual-first care (V1C), a new care model centered on convenient, customized, high-quality care that integrates a full suite of services tailored directly to patients’ clinical needs and preferences. This package includes asynchronous communication such as texting; video and other live virtual modes; and in-person options.
V1C goes beyond what you might think of as standard “telehealth” by using evidence-based protocols and tools that include traditional and digital therapeutics and testing, personalized care plans, dynamic patient monitoring, and team-based approaches to care. This could include spit kits mailed for laboratory tests and complementing clinical care with health coaching. V1C also replaces some in-person exams with ongoing monitoring, using sensors for more ‘whole person’ care.
Amidst all this momentum, we have the opportunity to rethink the goals of healthcare innovation, but that means bringing together key stakeholders to demonstrate that sustainable V1C can redefine healthcare.
Established V1C healthcare providers such as Omada, Headspace, and Heartbeat Health, as well as emerging market entrants like Oshi, Visana, and Wellinks, work with a variety of patients who have complicated long-term conditions such as diabetes, heart failure, gastrointestinal illness, endometriosis, and COPD. V1C is comprehensive in ways that are lacking in digital health and its other predecessors: it has the potential to integrate multiple data streams, incorporate more frequent touches and check-ins over time, and manage a much wider range of chronic health conditions, improving lives and reducing disease burden now and in the future.
Recognizing the pandemic-driven interest in virtual care, significant energy and resources are already flowing fast toward V1C. Some of the world’s largest innovators jumped into V1C early on: Verily, Alphabet’s Life Sciences Company, launched Onduo in 2016 to disrupt the diabetes healthcare market, and is now well positioned to scale its solutions. Major insurers like Aetna and United now offer virtual-first plans to members, responding as organizations expand virtual options for employees. Amidst all this momentum, we have the opportunity to rethink the goals of healthcare innovation, but that means bringing together key stakeholders to demonstrate that sustainable V1C can redefine healthcare.
That was the immediate impetus for IMPACT, a consortium of V1C companies, investors, payers and patients founded last year to ensure access to high-quality, evidence-based V1C. Developed by our team at the Digital Medicine Society (DiMe) in collaboration with the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), IMPACT has begun to explore key issues that include giving patients more integrated experiences when accessing both virtual and brick-and-mortar care.
Digital Medicine Society
V1C is not, nor should it be, virtual-only care. In this new era of hybrid healthcare, success will be defined by how well providers help patients navigate the transitions. How do we smoothly hand a patient off from an onsite primary care physician to, say, a virtual cardiologist? How do we get information from a brick-and-mortar to a digital portal? How do you manage dataflow while still staying HIPAA compliant? There are many complex regulatory implications for these new models, as well as an evolving landscape in terms of privacy, security and interoperability. It will be no small task for groups like IMPACT to determine the best path forward.
None of these factors matter unless the industry can recruit and retain clinicians. Our field is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis. Traditional healthcare is making clinicians miserable, and COVID has only accelerated the trend of overworked, disenchanted healthcare workers leaving in droves. Clinicians want more interactions with patients, and fewer with computer screens – call it “More face time, less FaceTime.” No new model will succeed unless the industry can more efficiently deploy its talent – arguably its most scarce and precious resource. V1C can help with alleviating the increasing burden and frustration borne by individual physicians in today’s status quo.
In healthcare, new technological approaches inevitably provoke no shortage of skepticism. Past lessons from Silicon Valley-driven fixes have led to understandable cynicism. But V1C is a different breed of animal. By building healthcare around the patient, not the clinic, V1C can make healthcare work better for patients, payers and providers. We’re at a fork in the road: we can revert back to a broken sick-care system, or dig in and do the hard work of figuring out how this future-forward healthcare system gets financed, organized and executed. As a field, we must find the courage and summon the energy to embrace this moment, and make it a moment of change.
COVID-19 prompted numerous companies to reconsider their approach to the future of work. Many leaders felt reluctant about maintaining hybrid and remote work options after vaccines became widely available. Yet the emergence of dangerous COVID variants such as Omicron has shown the folly of this mindset.
To mitigate the risks of new variants and other public health threats, as well as to satisfy the desires of a large majority of employees who express a strong desire in multiple surveys for a flexible hybrid or fully remote schedule, leaders are increasingly accepting that hybrid and remote options represent the future of work. No wonder that a February 2022 survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond showed that more and more firms are offering hybrid and fully-remote work options. The firms expect to have more remote workers next year and more geographically-distributed workers.
Although hybrid and remote work mitigates public health risks, it poses another set of health concerns relevant to employee wellbeing, due to the threat of proximity bias. This term refers to the negative impact on work culture from the prospect of inequality among office-centric, hybrid, and fully remote employees.
The difference in time spent in the office leads to concerns ranging from decreased career mobility for those who spend less facetime with their supervisor to resentment building up against the staff who have the most flexibility in where to work. In fact, a January 2022 survey by the company Slack of over 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that proximity bias is the top concern – expressed by 41% of executives - about hybrid and remote work.
To address this problem requires using best practices based on cognitive science for creating a culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This solution is based on guidance that I developed for leaders at 17 pioneering organizations for a company culture fit for the future of work.
Protect from proximity bias via the "Excellence From Anywhere" strategy
So why haven’t firms addressed the obvious problem of proximity bias? Any reasonable external observer could predict the issues arising from differences of time spent in the office.
Unfortunately, leaders often fail to see the clear threat in front of their nose. You might have heard of black swans: low-probability, high-impact threats. Well, the opposite kind of threats are called gray rhinos: obvious dangers that we fail to see because of our mental blindspots. The scientific name for these blindspots is cognitive biases, which cause leaders to resist best practices in transitioning to a hybrid-first model.
The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter.
Leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This term refers to a flexible organizational culture that takes into account the nature of an employee's work and promotes evaluating employees based on task completion, allowing remote work whenever possible.
Addressing Resentments Due to Proximity Bias
The “Excellence From Anywhere” strategy addresses concerns about treatment of remote workers by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation.
By valuing deliverables, collaboration, and innovation through a focus on a shared work culture of “Excellence From Anywhere,” you can instill in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter.
This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals, rather than the method of doing so. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite.
This technique appeals to the tribal aspect of our brains. We are evolutionarily adapted to living in small tribal groups of 50-150 people. Spending different amounts of time in the office splits apart the work tribe into different tribes. However, cultivating a shared focus on business outcomes helps mitigate such divisions and create a greater sense of unity, alleviating frustrations and resentments. Doing so helps improve employee emotional wellbeing and facilitates good collaboration.
Solving the facetime concerns of proximity bias
But what about facetime with the boss? To address this problem necessitates shifting from the traditional, high-stakes, large-scale quarterly or even annual performance evaluations to much more frequent weekly or biweekly, low-stakes, brief performance evaluation through one-on-one in-person or videoconference check-ins.
Supervisees agree with their supervisor on three to five weekly or biweekly performance goals. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report, under a page, to their boss of how they did on these goals, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, a quantitative self-evaluation, and proposed goals for next week. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, the supervisor responds in a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report.
It’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss: knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer.
At the one-on-one, the supervisor reinforces positive aspects of performance and coaches the supervisee on how to solve challenges better, agrees or revises the goals for next time, and affirms or revises the performance evaluation. That performance evaluation gets fed into a constant performance and promotion review system, which can replace or complement a more thorough annual evaluation.
This type of brief and frequent performance evaluation meeting ensures that the employee’s work is integrated with efforts by the supervisor’s other employees, thereby ensuring more unity in achieving business outcomes. It also mitigates concerns about facetime, since all get at least some personalized attention from their team leader. But more importantly, it addresses the underlying concerns about career mobility by giving all staff a clear indication of where they stand at all times. After all, it’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss: knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer.
Such best practices help integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows supervisor-supervisee relationships are the most critical ones for employee wellbeing, engagement, and retention.
You don’t have to be the CEO to implement these techniques. Lower-level leaders of small rank-and-file teams can implement these shifts within their own teams, adapting their culture and performance evaluations. And if you are a staff member rather than a leader, send this article to your supervisor and other employees at your company: start a conversation about the benefits of addressing proximity bias using such research-based best practices.
This month, Kira Peikoff passes the torch to me as editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. I’m excited to assume leadership of this important platform.
Leaps.org caught my eye back in 2018. I was in my late 30s and just starting to wake up to the reality that the people I care most about were getting older and more vulnerable to health problems. At the same time, three critical shifts were becoming impossible to ignore. First, the average age in the U.S. is getting older, a trend known as the “gray tsunami.” Second, healthcare expenses are escalating and becoming unsustainable. And third, our sedentary, stress-filled lifestyles are leading to devastating consequences.
These trends pointed to a future filled with disease, suffering and economic collapse. But whenever I visited Leaps.org, my outlook turned from gloomy to solution-oriented. I became just as fascinated in a fourth trend, one that stands to revolutionize our world: rapid, mind-bending innovations in health and medicine.
Brain atlases, genome sequencing and editing, AI, protein mapping, synthetic biology, 3-D printing—these technologies are yielding new opportunities for health, longevity and human thriving. COVID-19 has caused many setbacks, but it has accelerated scientific breakthroughs. History suggests we will see even more innovation—in digital health and virtual first care, for example—after the pandemic.
In 2020, I began covering these developments with articles for Leaps.org about clocks that measure biological aging, gene therapies for cystic fibrosis, and other seemingly futuristic concepts that are transforming the present. I wrote about them partly because I think most people aren’t aware of them—and meaningful progress can’t happen without public engagement. A broader set of stakeholders and society at large, not just the experts, must inform these changes to ensure that they reflect our values and ethics. Everyone should get the chance to participate in the conversation—and they must have the opportunity to benefit equally from the innovations we decide to move forward with. By highlighting cutting-edge advances, Leaps.org is helping to realize this important goal.
Meanwhile, as I wrote freelance pieces on health and wellness for outlets such as the Washington Post and Time Magazine, I kept seeing an intersect between the breakthroughs in research labs and our expanding knowledge about the science of well-being. Take, for example, emerging technologies designed to stop illnesses in their tracks and new research on the benefits of taking in natural daylight. These two areas, lab innovations and healthy lifestyles, both shift the focus from disease treatment to disease prevention and optimal health. It’s the only sensible, financially feasible way forward.
When Kira suggested that I consider a leadership role with Leaps.org, it struck me how much the platform’s ideals have informed my own perspectives. The frontpage gore of mainstream media outlets can feel like a daily dose of pessimism, with cynicism sometimes dressed up as wisdom. Leaps.org’s world view is rooted in something very different: rational optimism about the present moment and the possibility of human flourishing.
That’s why I’m proud to lead this platform, including our podcast, Making Sense of Science, and hope you’ll keep coming to Leaps.org to learn and join the conversation about scientific gamechangers through our sponsored events, our popular Instagram account and other social channels. Think critically about the breakthroughs and their ethical challenges. Help usher in the health and prosperity that could be ours if we stay open-minded to it.