What a difference 90 days makes.

I was scheduled to meet with Roy Jakobs, Chief Business Leader of Connected Care at Philips, at HIMSS in Orlando on 9th March 2020. I’d interviewed Roy at CES 2020 in Las Vegas in January to catch up on consumer health developments, and the March meeting was going to cover Philips’ innovations on the hospital and acute care side of the business, as well as to learn more about Roy’s new role as head of Connected Care.

HIMSS cancelled the conference just days before it was to commence….due to the great disruption of COVID-19.

Philips’ business, plans and projects had already been reshaping and redeploying due to the pandemic in Asia and Europe by then, Roy explained to me when we were finally able to recently convene by phone.

“We feel compelled to deliver on our purpose more than ever,” Roy told me in the first minutes of our call. “People at Philips are going out of their way to make it happen,” noting “extraordinary efforts” and teams mobilizing in the pandemic to meet the moment.

Philips continues on its “journey into Connected Care,” as Roy described the current trajectory as the company has pivoted directly into the heart of the coronavirus pandemic with health care systems around the world.

“COVID is a terrible pandemic,” he noted as his team is, “learning our way through it. It’s also an enormous stress test of the [health care] system. And with any stress test, you see where the limits are in what you have been building to-date,” he humbly confessed.

In the immediate term, as Roy coined it the “extreme short term,” Philips has been working on ventilators, monitors, installing equipment and servicing and supporting health system clients.

But the company is also working on solutions for the longer term, learning through the pandemic. This second graphic diagrams a patient journey map for the coronavirus, across the continuum of care settings from the community and home to primary care, emergency, hospital, and post-acute.

Philips, recently named as one of the largest Fortune Global Companies in 2020 (#385, up 46 spots and ranking in the top 10 largest public health care companies in the world), has been working globally with health systems since the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China in 2019. Philips was involved early on in responding to health system demands in the ASEAN region, discussed here in Healthcare IT News.

The company quickly learned that scaling in a pandemic can’t just be a physical phenomenon – the need to ramp up, so much so quickly, had to be grounded in digital solutions versus only physical ones (e.g., equipment and hardware).

Roy and I discussed Philips’ journey to this moment, starting in 2015—that doubling-down to becoming a health-tech company, a vision of digital health on both the hospital/professional and consumer sides of the equation. At that point, the company left behind other businesses not core to health. In that initial vision, Philips already envisioned care settings outside of hospitals. The signal for me was being served a smoothie from a Philips-branded food truck parked in front of the Austin Convention Center at South-by-Southwest in March 2015 as the sentinel event in my mind’s eye when Philips pivoted to digital health: positioned as, “Philips Connect to Healthy.” [For a blast-from-the-past nostalgic read, here’s the post I wrote at the time here in Health Populi].

Fast forward to the COVID-19 era: an ecosystem where you take care settings outside the walls of hospitals into homes. Now, this is a reality not a vision as health citizens around the world have complied with government mandates to #StayHome, shelter-in-place, from Chinese provinces to Madrid, to northern Italy and westward to the hotspot of New York City.

In this pandemic, “People could not leave their houses and could not, or would not, go to hospitals,” Roy observed. “We had to reinvent how to engage, monitor, and treat” patients with new approaches both in and outside the acute care setting.

Thus, the company continues on its journey of Connected Care — driven by the dramatic demands of a very tricky and infectious virus. Philips had already developed and was in the process of building new modules and solutions with customers before the COVID disruption. “But for hospitals to scale these was very difficult…the necessity to change wasn’t felt,” until….COVID-19.

“The downside of digital is that it is hard to change a legacy software system,” Roy explained. If a health system has built up a ten-year legacy with a system, cannot completely change in the short run. That’s the hospital side of the challenge of digital disruption.

Then consider the patient/consumer perspective. In many countries and in peoples’ minds, the only “real” way to get proper treatment is to go to a doctor and, in some countries, head to a hospital or a specialist clinic. “That is an intense and costly way to treat patients,” Roy said.

“For change to happen, it takes two parties willing to change. The willingness is there now,” Roy found, due to the disruption of COVID-19.

Philips has been intensively working on these challenges in real-time. In one case, the company has been collaborating with a health system operating 23 hospitals. Each institution had their own workflows and so Philips had to coordinate and develop an approach baking in interoperability and a cloud-based solution – consistent with the connected care journey the company had embarked on. As part of this project, the team asked, “How can we make this a more open environment for data flow, with analytics on top?”

Philips has seen a surge in demand for such solutions, with fast-growing demand for telehealth that helps to scale care outside of the hospital walls. The company has also responded to requests for specific modules, such as supporting patient engagement solutions that enable consumers to ask questions, triage and diagnose severity of an illness.

Another facet of telehealth is in helping to scale intensive care units (ICUs). In health systems with high-demand for COVID care, Philips has seen intense demand to extend care via “eICUs” which enhance productivity in scarce resource situations. Philips worked with UK Healthcare, part of the University of Kentucky academic health system, to deploy this as part of the organization’s response to the pandemic.

As part of the connected care patient journey, and also to enable hospitals to balance scarce capital and labor resources, Philips imagined how patients dealing with COVID-19 could step-down from intensive care to lower-intensity settings. The company pioneered a new disposable sensor to track vital signs that, as Roy described, “watches over you independent of a hospital bed.” This wearable technology is part of the remote monitoring environment that clinically surveils patients for signs of deterioration which can then allow clinicians to intervene early and improve patient outcomes. In the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals want patients to be (appropriately) discharged home from hospital as soon as possible.

This biosensor will be able to support patients beyond COVID-19 who are on different care pathways such as cardiac patients who need to be observed over time for heart function improvement or deterioration. This will further Philips’ vision for Evolution of Care Settings from hospital to home and self-care modes.

So we came full-circle in this conversation, which began at CES in Las Vegas as we brainstormed consumers at home, keen on prevention, self-care and caring for chronic conditions as much as can be done in the home setting. In the COVID-19 era, my consumer research has revealed new workflows by people at home, seeking more empowerment, health literacy, and control by staying away from health care settings to limit personal exposure to the virus.

The second trend coming from the opposite direction is a push from the hospital to the home. A year ago when we spoke about this concept, it was early on the adoption curve. In the post-pandemic landscape, hospital-to-home for acute care is more salient as hospitals deal with balancing scarce resources.

“This is a journey that starts with awareness,” Roy said. The pandemic has surely switched on that awareness for both hospitals and clinicians as well as consumers, patients and caregivers. “It’s changed the adoption curve” across health systems, Roy noted, as the coronavirus has provided momentum to truly plan for and implement digital transformation in health care.

“This is an exciting phase we’re in,” Roy said. “We haven’t solved everything yet, but we’re working strongly, hand in hand, with hospitals. There’s a lot to take care of.”

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  As of late May 2020, U.S. patients still hesitated to return to hospitals, emergency rooms, outpatient surgery centers and urgent care. This last chart details a question from the latest Kaufman Hall COVID-19 Consumer Survey conducted in late May 2020.

Telehealth has fast-morphed into a much-demanded virtual visit platform for millions of patients, now consumers making proactive decisions about just where and how they want to participate in health care.

People have grown new health literacy muscles — about viruses, contagion, prevention, immunity, the power of food-as-medicine, the risks of mental health and loneliness — a host of learnings over a few months among hundreds of millions of people with growing awareness of individual and public health.

Philips’ work evolving the Evolution of Care Settings will be part of a growing landscape of platforms that bridge care from hospital to community to home. Watch for more pioneering health systems to provide hospital-level care at home for patients and caregivers who want to take this on. Remote patient monitoring, wearable sensors, and consumer-facing digital health tech (like smartwatches, smart rings and Internet of Healthy Things for the home) will become common as more people have evolved into home-health consumers in the era of COVID. The new medical home is…home.