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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2 new COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

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While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Houston hospital receives $37M in donations to continue its life-saving cancer care

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A $25 million gift will support expansion of research conducted at the Houston Methodist Cancer Center and may help the center earn top-tier federal designation.

In honor of the $25 million donation from Dr. Mary Neal and husband Ron Neal, the cancer center is being renamed the Houston Methodist Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center. The hospital system will raise an additional $12 million in matching funds, bringing the total to $37 million.

Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, says the Bellaire couple's gift "plays an important role in advancing our leading medicine mission and bringing potentially life-saving cancer treatments to more patients throughout Houston and the nation."

Mary Neal, previously in private practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist, is now a part-time volunteer physician at Houston Methodist's San Jose Clinic. Ron Neal is co-founder and co-owner of offshore development company Houston Energy. He also is CEO of Houston-based HEQ Deepwater, a more than $400 million venture formed earlier this year by Houston Energy and Houston-based private equity firm Quantum Energy Partners to buy deepwater assets in the Gulf of Mexico.

With the donation from Dr. Mary Neal and husband Ron Neal, the cancer center is being renamed the Houston Methodist Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

The Neals' donation will boost ongoing research led by Dr. Jenny Chang, director of the cancer center and Emily Herrmann Presidential Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research. Chang's research has advanced cancer therapy with breakthroughs such as targeted drugs for treatment of breast cancer.

Mary Neal says she and her husband believe their contribution "will further advance pivotal and innovative research beyond chemotherapy and radiation."

The gift also will fund and retain three endowed chairs and complementary funding for early stage research and therapies, support recruitment and fellowship training, and expand clinical trials at all of the community hospitals within Houston Methodist. Part of the gift is dedicated to cancer innovation efforts within the Center for Drug Repositioning and Development.

"Our vision for the Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center is to grow our network of cancer physicians offering comprehensive care with the latest technologies and clinical trials so that patients across the region have the best access to cancer care," Chang says. "While the gift from the Neal family will have direct impact for patients at the community level in areas that are often deserts for cancer care, my hope is that it will also propel our ongoing research and work to the national level toward NCI designation."

Cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) meet rigorous standards for research and clinical care. The Neals' gift is aimed at elevating research done at the cancer center and helping retain talent to accelerate Houston Methodist's pursuit of NCI designation.

Texas is home to four NCI-designated cancer centers:

  • Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine.
  • University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, also in Houston.
  • Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
  • Mays Cancer Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

NCI designation represents "the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve," according to the University of Chicago's NCI-designated cancer center. "It's the gold standard for cancer programs, and is bestowed upon the nation's top cancer centers in recognition of their innovative research and leading-edge treatments."

This designation can lead to benefits such as more research grants, quicker access to clinical trials for cancer treatments, and stepped-up recruitment of high-profile cancer researchers.

"At any given time, hundreds of research studies are under way at the cancer centers, ranging from basic laboratory research to clinical assessments of new treatments," the NCI says. "Many of these studies are collaborative and may involve several cancer centers, as well as other partners in industry and the community."

Houston entrepreneur launches diversity-focused fund, programming to address inequality in tech

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 111

Phillip Yates is juggling a lot. The Houston lawyer started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help diverse communities create lasting wealth. Now, he's also launching Diversity Fund Houston — a $3 million initiative to support diverse tech founders — ahead of the inaugural Black Entrepreneurship Week, which Yates is hosting in Houston starting Saturday, November 27.

While it is a handful, all three initiatives align with Yates's goal to move the needle on improving equity when it comes to access to capital, finding a community, and creating institutional change. Just like most Black professional, he's faced his share of challenges — but he's persevered thanks to his mentors, family, and supportive network.

"Everytime I failed, there was somebody there that made sure I stayed on track," Yates shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Now Yates, across his efforts, wants to help create this same type of support for others. Equaliberty connects users to a hyper-local network and mentor, as well as relationships to financial institutions and key resources.

"We're doing two things — we're creating a new asset class for banks and financial institutions, but then also we're building a group of wealth creators in the community who will take ownership in the geographical region they live in, which isn't happening," Yates says. "We throw the word 'gentrification' around, but we never attack it at the root problem, and a lot of times it's ownership."

Ultimately, Yates says he wants to help to move the needle on eliminating poverty in the United States — it's not going to happen overnight or with him alone. One huge step toward this goal is raising awareness of the issues, and that's what he hopes to do with Black Entrepreneurship Week.

BEW will feature several opportunities — from the Black Market, which will allow people to shop local Black merchants, to a special Giving Tuesday event to support Black-focused nonprofits in Houston. Specifically, Yates wants to target a multi-generational crowd — that's what's goring to drive lasting changes.

"When you have a wealth initiative, you can't just talk to the parents or the youth — you're still going to have a missing link there," Yates says on the show, explaining the week's wealth challenge that will reinforce this idea.

Access to wealth is a key focus for Yates, who announced the launch of Diversity Fund Houston this week co-founded by emerging fund managers Tiffany Williams, Kiley Summers, and Yates and in partnership with Bank of America, Houston Area Urban League, Hello Alice, Impact Hub Houston, Equiliberty, DivInc., and Prairie View A&M University.

The fund will target early-stage companies founded by diverse entrepreneurs — tapping into an underserved community, not just because it's the right thing to do but because there are real opportunities. And now is the time to make these changes, Yates says.

"The Black American community is at a point where millennials are coming into their own," Yates says explaining how he's at the opportune point in his life. "I'm stable enough and still young enough where I can make these contributions — and the same thing with my co-founders. ... Time is of the essence for our community."

Yates shares more on what to expect at BEW and with the new fund on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.