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Digital health innovation emerges during COVID-19 pandemic

Image of The Defense Health Agency’s Connected Health Branch was there to support, advise and deliver new health innovations throughout the pandemic. (Graphic courtesy of DHA Connected Health). The Defense Health Agency’s Connected Health Branch was there to support, advise and deliver new health innovations throughout the pandemic. (Graphic courtesy of DHA Connected Health)

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While the world holds the spotlight on the health care industry amid an ongoing global pandemic, health care innovations developed at an extraordinary speed. The Defense Health Agency’s Connect Health Branch, which focuses on advancing health technologies, was there to support, advise and deliver new health innovations throughout the pandemic.

Before COVID-19, early adopters of virtual health, or telehealth, saw the efficiencies of a virtual medical appointments for certain situations. However, with the uncertainty and precautions occurring due to the pandemic, more and more individuals see the benefits of virtual health care.

“[Virtual Health] as a core health care capability is here to stay. The Military Health System’ path forward can build upon COVID-19 and pre-existing efforts to develop enterprise VH capabilities that connect service members and their families to optimal health care—wherever and whenever it is needed,” said Dr. Jamie Adler, lead of the Virtual Health Clinical Integration Office in the DHA’s Connected Health Branch. 

But for those late adopters, the technological advances in health care may have added a new hesitation during an insecure time.

Dr. Julie Kinn, patient safety solutions lead in the DHA’s Patient Safety Program, Clinical Quality Management, took a deeper look at how MHS providers can practice cultural humility when using digital health with patients.

“Research indicates a culturally humble approach enables providers and patients to understand each other better and trust each other more. These stronger relationships can empower and encourage patients to adopt evidence-based practices shown to improve health outcomes, including digital health technology,” Kinn said.

Understanding where a patient is coming from and their stressors with technology, Kinn added, will allow providers to develop stronger relationships with their patients, and it will improve the ability to incorporate digital health and improve their health care outcomes.

Dr. Robert Ciulla, lead of the clearinghouse team in the DHA’s Connected Health Branch, also explained that he believes that MHS providers need to understand where patients are coming from when it comes to digital health to help patients build trust with the new reality of digital health.

Ciulla provides a few tips to assist MHS providers in creating better patient-centered partnerships for digital health:

  1. Be ready to combine multiple different digital health technology platforms: “Providing the best care in this environment requires providers to be familiar with all platforms and thoroughly knowledgeable about the ones they use most often,” Ciulla said. “This breadth of knowledge will augment providers’ ability to combine platforms in ways tailored to the needs of each patient and quickly adapt to equipment or connectivity issues. Getting a head start on these skills will enable us and our patients to take best advantage of currently available solutions as well as those to come.”
  2. Be both a learner and a teacher: “We have the responsibility to thoroughly understand and trust digital health tools. The Defense Health Agency offers a wide variety of free apps, websites, and podcasts grounded in clinical research and vetted to ensure quality and safety,” Ciulla said. “We also should view partnering with our patients as an essential part of effective care. We cannot automatically assume, however, that patients are ready for or conversant with these technologies.”
  3. Maintain open and respectful communication: “While digital health has changed the medical landscape, the essential characteristics of health care remain the same whether that care is supported by technologies or not: a thorough evaluation, attention to patient engagement, and interventions that are evidenced-based,” Ciulla said.

Since the onset of the global pandemic in 2020, the DHA Connected Health Branch has worked to aid providers and patients in incorporating digital health into their care. The branch has partnered across the Military Health System and processed over 15 mobile application requests, developed the Provider Resilience toolkit, and is currently working on launching three podcasts.

“We not only have to partner at the organizational level, we have to individually treat each patient as a partner as well. We have to understand where our patients are coming from, meet them where they are, and put them at the center of everything we do,” said Dr. Simon Pincus, chief of the DHA Connected Health Branch. “Shifting to safe, and convenient, way of digital health care is bridging a better health care system for tomorrow.

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