More and more Houston companies are having employees return to the office, but business leaders should take advantage of new tools and best practices. Getty Images

As states begin to relax their stay-at-home orders and communities plan for the reopening of local economies, many may be returning to work and engaging in more regular social activity. While the return to some semblance of normalcy may come as a relief, questions about one's own health or the health of family members may remain.

Upon returning to work, people should continue to be smart and cautious while interacting with others. Following CDC guidelines and maintaining social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and frequently sanitizing common areas or high-contact items, including doorknobs, hand railings and communal phones and printers, can be good preventive measures to help mitigate COVID-19 health risks.

Business associations, health systems, and governments are crafting guidelines to help mitigate risks associated with reopening communities, but additional resources may be available to help individuals navigate their own physical and mental health during this transition period.

Many may continue to have questions related to potential COVID-19 symptoms. To help, UnitedHealthcare provides an online COVID-19 symptom self-checker to help people gauge their symptoms and consider what may be the next steps for care. The symptom self-checker is at no additional cost for people to access, and users of the self-checker tool will be asked to answer a series of questions to generate feedback on care options to consider, which then assigns assessment levels ranging from self-isolation to emergency care, depending on the severity and urgency of the symptoms recorded. A testing site locator feature provides updated information on nearby COVID-19 testing sites if recommended by a physician.

Some people may still need to see a doctor but may worry about the potential risk of exposure (or the risk of exposing others) with in-person visits to a physician's office or urgent care center. As an alternative starting point for care, some people may continue to consider telehealth, which enables people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smart phone, tablet or desktop computer. Telehealth may be especially helpful as an initial option for medical advice related to COVID-19, and to help evaluate other possible health issues, such as allergies, pink eye or the flu.

Employers also have a tool available for their employees. ProtectWell, a new smartphone app just launched by Microsoft and UnitedHealth Group, screens employees for COVID-19. Employees found to be at-risk for COVID-19 are directed to get a test and the app notifies employers of the results. The ProtectWell app is offered to all employers in the United States at no charge.

Access to mental health resources may also continue to be an important tool for people to have as they head back to work. Being at home and perhaps feeling isolated over the last few months may have had an impact on one's mental health, and the loneliness people may be experiencing, as well as possible stress or anxiety brought on by the pandemic, should be considered alongside physical health.

Virtual mental health resources are available for those experiencing increased stress and anxiety. A free emotional support line (866-342-6892) is available 24/7 to the public courtesy of Optum, which is part of UnitedHealth Group. Staffed by mental health professionals, individuals may receive help without taking any unnecessary trips.

Available at no additional cost, mental health and wellness apps, like Sanvello, may also be great resources for coping with the ongoing stress and anxiety. Equipped with self-care tools, peer support groups, coaching and therapy, Sanvello offers a number of avenues to receive the help and support one may need as they return to work.

For people who used mental health services before COVID-19, some care providers offer long-distance counseling and other resources, enabling for continued care from the comfort of home. Check with your providers regarding options on what may work best for you.

Taking care of physical and mental health needs may be imperative in the coming weeks and months as communities strive to reopen and individuals resume more familiar living routines. Using online and telehealth services may play a role in facilitating a smoother and healthier transition.

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Dr. Sarah-Anne Schumann is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare of Oklahoma and North Texas.

Telemedicine is a growing resources for Houstonians, but here's what you need to know about tapping into digital health care. Ian Hooton/Getty Images

4 tips for Houstonians tuning into telemedicine from local health care exec

Guest column

When health issues crop up, people often have to decide where best to seek medical attention, with urgent care and the emergency room being potential destinations. But for more and more Houston residents, their smartphone is now the preferred way to see and talk to a doctor.

Telemedicine visits, also known as virtual care, typically last less than 20 minutes, often cost less than $50 and enable people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smartphone, tablet or personal computer to help diagnose and treat certain medical conditions. While nearly 40 percent of Americans said they are interested in using telemedicine in the future to access care a separate J.D. Power survey found nationwide telehealth adoption is currently as low as 10 percent.

Closing this gap by expanding the use of virtual care may prove beneficial, as this technology can provide consumers improved convenience and lower costs. In fact, 68 percent of patients rated their telemedicine visit a "nine" or "10" on a 10-point satisfaction scale; 74 percent had their care concern resolved during the first visit; and net savings per virtual visit exceeded $120.

To help people take advantage of this emerging technology, here are four tips to consider:

Identify Available Resources
Among people who had not used telemedicine, the J.D. Power survey found that 37 percent said they did not know if they had access to this technology. To find telemedicine resources that may be available to you, check with your hospital or care provider group, health insurance plan or employer. In fact, nearly nine out of 10 employers are offering telemedicine to their employees, while 76 percent of U.S. hospitals already connect patients and care providers using video or other technology. For Medicare beneficiaries, some Medicare Advantage plans are offering coverage for telemedicine and resources to access virtual care, in some cases at no out-of-pocket cost.

For Houston residents, most people enrolled in UnitedHealthcare employer-sponsored plans have coverage for virtual physician visits, giving plan participants secure, online access to a physician via mobile phone, tablet or computer 24 hours a day. Several Houston-area hospitals and provider groups have also introduced virtual care resources, and changes in state regulations in 2017 helped spur additional national telemedicine companies to start serving the market.

Understand Appropriate Uses
While telemedicine may have the potential to help treat other health issues, the technology is most widely used to address minor and nonemergency medical conditions, including allergies, flu, pinkeye, and rashes. Telemedicine is also emerging as a helpful resource for behavioral health services, making it more convenient for people to access this type of care. If needed, doctors can prescribe medications and send prescriptions to local pharmacies for pickup. While people who experience a significant or serious medical issue should go to the emergency room (ER), it is important to recognize that about 25 percent of ER visits typically involve conditions that could appropriately be addressed with a virtual visit.

Keep Your Primary Care Physician
Telemedicine may be ideal for treating minor and nonemergency medical issues, but it is important for people to maintain a relationship with a primary care physician for wellness checkups, diagnostics, management of long-term conditions and some urgent and non-urgent treatments. As telemedicine programs evolve, people may have the option to use virtual visits to access primary care and maintain an on-going relationship with their preferred doctor.

Other Connected Devices
Consumers can consider other connected devices to help access care and potentially improve their health, ranging from smartwatches and activity trackers to continuous blood glucose monitors and connected asthma inhalers. These connected devices – and others like them – may provide important real-time information and offer people actionable feedback about their behavior patterns, while helping make it possible for care providers to counsel patients to more effectively follow recommended treatments.

Making telemedicine more widely available – and used – may be especially important for people with chronic conditions and the 20 percent of the U.S. population that lives in rural areas where access to health care, particularly specialty care, is often lacking. By considering these tips, people may make the most of telemedicine resources as part of their journey toward managing their health.

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Dave Milich is the CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Texas.

Three panelists representing the real estate, banking, and health care industries weighed in on innovation in Houston. Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Overheard: Houston execs weigh in on the innovation ecosystem and local startups

Eavesdropping in Houston

Something has shifted in Houston, and businesses across industries — whether it be real estate, health care, or energy — are focused on innovation, emerging technologies, and the role of startups within the business community.

At the Greater Houston Partnership's annual Economic Outlook on December 5, three panelists from various industries gathered to discuss some of the biggest issues in Houston — from the multifamily real estate market to what the local workforce needs. The panel was moderated by Eddie Robinson, the morning news anchor for Houston Public Radio, and the panelists did weigh in a few issues affecting innovation.

Missed the talk? Here are a few overheard moments from the discussion.

"Houston allows you to do what you do. And you don't get that in other places."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Bradley R. Freels, chairman of Midway Cos. Freels says, while the city's been overshadowed by other Texas cities for innovation and tech — and even by its large oil and gas industry presence, the city is becoming a great place for startups. "This is a great place to do business because it's easy to get started in business here. I think it's just over shadowed to some degree," he says, adding later that, "the initiative around the innovation corridor is real."

"Houston is unique, in my opinion, in how open and welcoming it is."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

— David Milich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare - Texas & Oklahoma. Building off the panelists point that Houston is a spirited, can-do city, Milich specifies that it's the collaboration between people in Houston that sets the city apart. "When we present ourselves with something to get done, we generally get it down."

"We're realizing that the economy is shifting. As we move forward in the 21st century, our entire workforce needs to be tech fluent."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Nataly Marks, managing director and region manager at JPMorgan Chase. When asked about jobs needed in Houston, Marks specified technology positions. Moreover, JPMorgan Chase is emphasizing getting the entire staff proficient in the latest tech resources.

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Houston hospital joins the metaverse with new platform

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Houston Methodist has launched a platform that is taking medical and scientific experts and students into the metaverse.

The MITIEverse, a new app focused on health care education and training, provides hands-on practice, remote assistance from experienced clinicians, and more. The app — named for the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education, aka MITIE — was created in partnership with FundamentalVR and takes users into virtual showcase rooms, surgical simulations, and lectures from Houston Methodist faculty, as well as collaborators from across the world.

“This new app brings the hands-on education and training MITIE is known for to a new virtual audience. It could be a first step toward building out a medical metaverse,” says Stuart Corr, inventor of the MITIEverse and director of innovation systems engineering at Houston Methodist, in a news release.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

The hospital system's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center has created a virtual showcase room on the app, and users can view Houston Methodist faculty performing real surgeries and then interact with 3D human models.

"We view the MITIEverse as a paradigm-shifting platform that will offer new experiences in how we educate, train, and interact with the health community,” says Alan Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in the release.

“It essentially democratizes access to health care educators and innovators by breaking down physical barriers. There’s no need to travel thousands of miles to attend a conference when you can patch into the MITIEverse," he continues.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

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A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Houston research: How best to deliver unexpected news as a company

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According to Forbes, the volume of mergers and acquisitions in 2021 was the highest on record, and 2022 has already seen a number of major consolidation attempts. Microsoft’s acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard was the biggest gaming industry deal in history, according to Reuters. JetBlue recently won the bid over Frontier Airlines to merge with Spirit Airlines. And, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk recently backed out of an attempt to acquire Twitter.

It can be hard to predict how markets will react to such high-profile deals (and, in Elon Musk and Twitter’s case, whether or not the deal will even pan out). But Rice Business Professor Haiyang Li and Professor Emeritus Robert Hoskisson, along with Jing Jin of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, have found that companies can take advantage of these deals to buffer the effects of other news.

The researchers looked at 7,575 mergers and acquisitions from 2001 to 2015, with a roughly half-and-half split between positive and negative stock market reactions. They found that when there’s a negative reaction to a deal, companies have two strategies for dealing with it. If it’s a small negative reaction, companies will release positive news announcements in an attempt to soften the blow. But when the reaction is really bad, companies actually tend to announce more negative news afterward. Specifically, companies released 18% less positive news and 52% more negative news after a bad market reaction.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a method to the madness, and it all has to do with managing expectations. If people are lukewarm on a company due to a merger or acquisition, it’s possible to sway public opinion with unrelated good news. When the backlash is severe, though, a little bit of good PR won’t be enough to change people’s minds. In this case, companies release more bad news because it’s one of their best chances to do so without making waves in the future. If people already think poorly of a company due to a recent deal, more bad news isn’t great, but it doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Therefore, it’s easier to ignore.

It might make more sense to just keep quiet if the market reaction to a deal is bad, and this study found that most companies do. However, this only applies when releasing more news would make a mildly bad situation worse. If things are already bad enough that the company can’t recover with good news, it can still make the best out of a bad situation by offloading more bad news when the damage will be minimal. Companies are legally obligated to disclose business-related news or information with shareholders and with the public. If it’s bad news, they like to share it when the public is already upset about a deal, instead of releasing the negative news when there are no other distractions. In this case the additional negative news is likely to get more play in the media when disclosed by itself.

But what happens when people get excited about a merger or acquisition? In these cases, it also depends on how strong the sentiment is. If the public’s reaction is only minimally positive, companies may opt to release more good news in hopes of making the reaction stronger. When the market is already enthusiastic about the deal, though, companies won’t release more positive news. The researchers found that after an especially positive market reaction to a deal, companies indeed released 12% less positive news but 56% more negative news. Also, one could argue that the contrasting negative news makes the good news on the acquisition look even better. This may be important especially if the acquisition is a significant strategic move.

There are several reasons why a company wouldn’t continue to release positive news after a good press day and strong market reaction. First of all, they want to make sure that a rise in market price is attributed to the deal alone, and not any irrelevant news. A positive reaction to a deal also gives companies another opportunity to disclose bad news at a time when it will get less attention. If the bad news does get attention, the chances are better that stakeholders will go easy on them — a little bit of bad press is forgivable when the good news outshines it.

Companies may choose to release no news after a positive reaction to a merger or acquisition, the same way they might opt to stay quiet after backlash. They’re less likely to release positive news when stakeholders are already happy, preferring to save that news for the next time they need it, either to offset a negative reaction or strengthen a weak positive reaction.

Mergers and acquisitions can produce unpredictable market reactions, so it’s important for companies to be prepared for a variety of outcomes. In fact, Jin, Li and Hoskisson found that the steps taken by companies before deals were announced didn’t have much effect on the public’s reaction. They found that it’s more important for companies to make the best out of that reaction, whatever it turns out to be.

The researchers also found that, regardless of whether the market reaction was positive or negative, as long as the reaction was strong, companies could use the opportunity to hide smaller pieces of bad news in the shadow of a headline-making deal. Overall, the magnitude of the reaction mattered more than the type of reaction. People tend to have stronger reactions to unexpected news, though, so companies prefer to release negative news when market expectations are already low.

These findings are relevant beyond merger announcements, of course; they also point to strategies that could be useful in everyday communications. A key takeaway is that negative information is less upsetting when people already expect bad things — or when it comes after much bigger, and much better, news. Bad news is always hard to deliver, but this research gives us a few ways to soften the blow.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Jin, Haiyang Li and Robert Hoskisson.