COVID can speed up evolution of healthcare technology

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In 1972, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge proposed a theory called punctuated equilibrium. This model bolstered Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which outlined a gradual and steady process of change within Earth’s species. But it also acknowledged what scientists observed in the field – that the fossil record showed more radical change.

Rather than gradual evolution, punctuated equilibrium held that the creation of a new species occurred quickly, in terms of geological time, usually because of new environmental pressures. And between these punctuations they observed long periods of stasis where a species’ adaptation to their environment is “good enough” and doesn’t change radically.

It’s interesting to note that species — from the tiny trilobite to the titanic T-rex to modern humans — don’t know whether they’re living through a punctuation event or a period of stasis. The fossil record tells that story, long after species have endured the consequences.

So, what does punctuated equilibrium have to do with healthcare? The COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid pace of innovation may have placed healthtech in the middle of one such punctuation event right now.

If this is true, healthcare leaders have a remarkable opportunity that the dinosaurs never had. We can decide to prioritise the innovative healthcare technologies and processes that give evolution an edge over extinction.

Challenges morph in response to COVID-19

When a species is in stasis, its members are attuned to the environment. That continues until rapid or profound external pressure kicks natural selection into gear. Then, after evolutionary adaptations occur, stasis once again returns.

Does that sound familiar?

Every healthcare organisation, from care providers to life sciences and MedTech companies, has seen its challenges and strategic goals morph in response to COVID-19. For example, health systems focusing on patient engagement, population health and quality improvement pivoted to building COVID wards, supporting mass testing, resourcing contact tracing and deploying integrations. Healthcare organisations once again shuffled priorities when vaccines hit the market.

Although organisational concerns change every year, the pandemic represented a radical acceleration. Agility and innovation became crucial to survival. Rapid prototyping, fast failure and a commitment to key objectives incited healthcare innovation in everything from advanced technology projects to simple workflow revisions.

InterSystems clients established digital vaccination appointment booking systems in a month, mass testing programs in weeks, and new wards in days. Some experts believe that telehealth, meanwhile, jumped 10 years forward. Our customers adapted on their own by opening new labs and hospital wards in record time and innovating their processes, all without major changes to their technology platform.

COVID-19’s relationship with healthtech included precisely the kinds of environmental pressure and adaptative response that define punctuated equilibrium.

Punctuation event necessitates agility and resilience

We’ve been helping healthcare organisations innovate long before today’s punctuation event. Our commitment to agility drove the decision to move InterSystems TrakCare® to a continuous release process, a major change through which we resolved to release all new features and projects at the moment of completion.

We have also made it easier for TrakCare clients to stay current but supporting the latest release of TrakCare on more than one version of InterSystems IRIS for Health, which allows clients to stay current without having to undertake major upgrade projects.

We believe that a data platform built specifically for healthcare is key to getting through this punctuation event. Multi-dimensional data storage, a full FHIR repository, analytics and a suite of interoperability tools empower healthcare organisations to make the most of their data, which has proved critical during COVID.

We also had to stay flexible to meet local needs and regulations. To facilitate virtual appointments, InterSystems integrated with Google Meet in Chile, Microsoft Teams in Thailand and the Middle East, and WeChat in China, to name a few. Each integration used the same underlying pattern to book, store and notify patients of appointments and allow clinicians to launch the appointment from within TrakCare.

COVID-19 reminded us that healthcare innovation can come from within an organisation. In Australia, a team of four InterSystems interns developed new tools within TrakCare, building a chat bot that enabled clinicians to access patient data through Microsoft Teams and an integration with Google and Apple wallets for outpatient appointment booking, in just two months. Our customers built similar chat bots that helped get them through the pandemic, but we liked the wallet integration so much that it’s going to become a part of TrakCare.

My point: Innovation can occur even under tight constraints.

Opportunity for change won’t last forever

No one knows when healthcare will reach its next period of stasis, but it could take years. Everyone in this industry has the opportunity to support innovation today, for long-term value tomorrow. Healthcare organisations that choose to hesitate rather than innovate only risk reserving their place in the fossil record.

Author: Dimitri Fane

Author Img

As Director of Product Management, Dimitri Fane leads the global product, quality and clinical teams for InterSystems TrakCare. He is responsible for the TrakCare product strategy and roadmap within the broader healthcare division, and ensuring alignment with global clients and industry trends. He first joined InterSystems in 1999.

Company: InterSystems


InterSystems is the information engine that powers some of the world’s most important applications. In healthcare, finance, government, and other sectors where lives and livelihoods are at stake, InterSystems has been a strategic technology provider since 1978. InterSystems is a privately held company headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA), with offices worldwide, and its software products are used daily by millions of people in more than 80 countries. For more information, visit InterSystems.com

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