Surprising Pandemic-Driven Progress in American Health: Day One Conference Report

By  |  April 21, 2021, 12:39 PM


Americans are surprisingly optimistic about their health as we collectively emerge from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, reported John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, at the outset of the three-day Health+Wealth of America conference Tuesday. “There seems to be a sense of perhaps relief or even confidence as people think about their health moving forward.” The conference is hosted by Techonomy, Worth Magazine, and CDX. Harris and Techonomy have jointly embarked on an ongoing American Progress Project, based on in-depth polling to track how Americans feel about themselves and their country as we emerge from the pandemic into a more technologized yet highly uncertain new set of realities.

The pandemic was at the center of the first day’s conversations. Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, is obsessed with COVID but also, like Americans, quite optimistic. He said one triumph of the recent period is how quickly science was able to move–creating highly effective vaccines with unprecedented speed. Those vaccines “are going to get us out of this mess that we’re in,” he explained. “The average time it takes for a successful vaccine is eight-and-a-half years.” But we got these in less than a year, and they are more effective than any just about any vaccines ever.

Topol says there is too much concern with what he calls “scariants.”  “All these news headlines like, ‘The Devil Is Already Here’ and ‘The Double Mutant’ and all these things…[but]  right now there’s really just a handful of variants that are real, that they all should be considered innocent until proven guilty.” Most importantly, he emphasized, our already-approved vaccines seem in general very effective at preventing infection with them.

Jim Swanson, chief information officer at Johnson & Johnson, whose session was entitled ‘How Technology can Help to Advance Health Equity,’ started off speaking to the recent pause on J&J’s vaccine. “We are aware of an extremely rare disorder involving people with blood clots in combination with low platelets and a small number of individuals who have received our vaccine,” Swanson said. “We’ve administered over almost 7 million doses, with a very, very small number of cases…But in an abundance of caution, we took a pause at the recommendation of the CDC and FDA…We will follow their guidance as prescribed… But we certainly feel very confident in the vaccine…And from a manufacturing standpoint, all doses that have been distributed have met rigorous company regulatory quality standards, as you’d expect, and will continue to do so for the future.”

But J&J is a vast health care enterprise, and Swanson, involved with all aspects of tech across the health giant’s many businesses, says this pandemic year helped push many aspects of medicine forward.  “It really forced more…telehealth, and it has allowed for I think an intimate session with the physician and the patient. It doesn’t replace completely an in-person visit; you still need those. But maybe now this is more effective because you can do more sequences of touching [base] with your physician—quickly, low-touch…and then when you need to come in it’s a more effective interaction.”

Mayor Frank Jackson of Cleveland spoke about lessons learned from the pandemic and the vaccine rollout, and was joined by senior deputy Valarie McCall and Dr. Robert Wyllie, chief of medical operations at Cleveland Clinic. Wyllie explained how the city and the Clinic worked together on geo-locating the residences of people who tested positive for COVID-19, which enabled highly targeted quarantines even to the level of buildings with disproportionate cases. Next, he said, will be targeted vaccination campaigns. While Cleveland managed deftly, the disaster was a major learning experience, said McCall. It highlighted “inherent disparities,” she said, around broadband access, transportation, and telehealth.

Another session focused in on how clinical trials for drugs changed in the face of the pandemic. It turns out that even as the delivery of healthcare went dramatically more digital during the pandemic, so did the way drug trials were conducted. Jackie Kent, chief customer officer at Medidata, a clinical trial software company, explained in a conversation with Jennifer Gottlieb, president of healthcare services and communications expert Real Chemistry. Using tech and home monitoring, remote administration and followup, and the use of local labs are part of what’s referred to as “decentralized trials,” as opposed to requiring patients to come to central clinics specially trained to administer and followup on patients in trials. Kent said the pandemic required such approaches: “The decentralized trial is allowing access to so many more patients,” she explained. “The regulators have thrown the doors open.”

A related session presented in partnership with the Food Allergy Research & Education non-profit, addressed why food allergies ares so much more common now. Dr. Jonathan Spergel, chief of the Allergy Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that experts speculate the reasons may include too much cleanliness (“the hygiene hypothesis”), changes in cooking and food processing, and the possibility of over-diagnosis and over-testing. He was joined by Dr.  Amal H. Assa’ad,  director of clinical services for allergy and Immunology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Both doctors are very hopeful about advancements they expect in the next ten years, including doing a far better job to recognize and treat food allergies among Asian, Black, and Hispanic Americans.

The day ended with a somewhat grim discussion on ‘Can American Democracy Survive?’ with Michael Tomasky, the new editor of The New Republic and longtime editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. “We’re in a dangerous point,” said Tomasky. “Donald Trump is gone, and he’s out of our brains…but you and I don’t know what those January 6 plotters are doing today.”

His tone didn’t lighten as he continued: “It’s very clear that our Constitution, which we were all raised to revere and all that stuff, doesn’t work” He did at least say various reforms being discussed could potentially bolster democracy.

But as the day’s discussions underscored, at least we’ve made progress on our personal health, even as we have much work to do on the health of our nation.

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