What's the future of telehealth as we emerge out of the pandemic? This guest contributor weighs in. Photo via Getty Images

As medical practitioners were faced with the abrupt arrival of the pandemic, they had to immediately adapt to new technologies and switch to telehealth – fundamentally changing the way healthcare is delivered. During the first few months of the pandemic, many private practices were forced to close their doors. Some have since opened with limited schedules, but many are still feeling the effects linger.

Telehealth has grown in popularity due to the efficiency and convenience it offers to both patients and providers. A recent CDC report noted that 30 percent of weekly health care visits occurred via telehealth from June to November 2020. According to the Health Center Program Data, 43 percent of health centers were capable of providing telehealth in 2019, compared to 95 percent of health centers using telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As patients and healthcare institutions navigate this remote landscape, many challenges need to be addressed. Particularly, the rules and regulations that govern telehealth and how to ensure telehealth platforms can be used safely to offer care. Beyond policies and laws, there are several infrastructure hurdles affecting the implementation of telehealth services in rural areas, making this population vulnerable to inadequate access to care. The same CDC report noted that rural areas reported the lowest average of weekly health care visits via telehealth.

Practitioners also face new challenges evaluating and diagnosing patients without having the ability to do a hands-on physical exam and access to vitals such as blood pressure, heart rate and temperature during virtual visits. Telehealth visits are no match for direct, inpatient clinical visits, but practitioners are still trying to find its role in our current healthcare system.

Some of the ways we've integrated a technology-driven approach to healthcare at WellnessSpace is through putting together the best of both worlds. We focus on in-person visits that have the convenience of technology to enhance the experience of both members and their clients. We use client self-check-in kiosks, an interactive mobile app that allows our members to reserve suites on-demand, download invoices, manage their bios and message other members. We are focusing on providing an easy and integrated experience for both patients and practitioners, which is something that will play a key role in how practitioners and patients navigate the "new normal" as we move forward.

We can expect telehealth to continue to play a vital role in providing healthcare, but for the vast majority of practices, telehealth will supplement in-person visits, not replace them. In a release from the Department of Health and Human Services, surveyed practitioners expect telehealth to remain at 21 percent compared to 51 percent during the pandemic.

Overall, the pandemic has opened the doors for telehealth and increased its adoption among all age groups. It's provided an alternative for practitioners to still offer care, just in a different way. While it's not ideal for all situations, this technology is a tool that can help practitioners continue what they do best – helping patients.

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Sunny Somaiya is the co-owner of Houston-based WellnessSpace.

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Houston-based health tech startup is revolutionizing patient selection for clinical trials

working smarter

On many occasions in her early career, Dr. Arti Bhosale, co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health, found herself frustrated with having to manually sift through thousands of digital files.

The documents, each containing the medical records of a patient seeking advanced treatment through a clinical trial, were always there to review — and there were always more to read.

Despite the tediousness of prescreening, which could take years, the idea of missing a patient and not giving them the opportunity to go through a potentially life-altering trial is what kept her going. The one she didn’t read could have slipped through the cracks and potentially not given someone care they needed.

“Those stories have stayed with me,” she says. “That’s why we developed Sieve.”

When standard health care is not an option, advances in medical treatment could be offered through clinical trials. But matching patients to those trials is one of the longest standing problems in the health care industry. Now with the use of new technology as of 2018, the solution to the bottleneck may be a new automated approach.

“Across the globe, more than 30 percent of clinical trials shut down as a result of not enrolling enough patients,” says Bhosale. “The remaining 80 percent never end up reaching their target enrollment and are shut down by the FDA.”

In 2020, Bhosale and her team developed Sieve Health, an AI cloud-based SaaS platform designed to automate and accelerate matching patients with clinical trials and increase access to clinical trials.

Sieve’s main goal is to reduce the administrative burden involved in matching enrollments, which in turn will accelerate the trial execution. They provide the matching for physicians, study sponsors and research sites to enhance operations for faster enrollment of the trials.

The technology mimics but automates the traditional enrollment process — reading medical notes and reviewing in the same way a human would.

“I would have loved to use something like this when I was on the front lines,” Bhosale says, who worked in clinical research for over 12 years. “Can you imagine going through 10,000 records manually? Some of the bigger hospitals have upwards of 100,000 records and you still have to manually review those charts to make sure that the patient is eligible for the trial. That process is called prescreening. It is painful.”

Because physicians wear many hats and have many clinical efforts on their plates, research tends to fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Finding 10-20 patients can take the research team on average 15-20 months to find those people — five of which end up unenrolling, she says.

“We have designed the platform so that the magic can happen in the background, and it allows the physician and research team to get a jumpstart,” she says.” They don’t have to worry about reviewing 10,000 records — they know what their efforts are going to be and will ensure that the entire database has been scanned.”

With Sieve, the team was able to help some commercial pilot programs have a curated data pool for their trials – cutting the administrative burden and time spent searching to less than a week.

Sieve is in early-stage start up mode and the commercial platform has been rolled out. Currently, the team is conducting commercial projects with different research sites and hospitals.

“Our focus now is seeing how many providers we can connect into this,” she says. “There’s a bigger pool out there who want to participate in research but don’t know where to start. That’s where Sieve is stepping in and enabling them to do this — partnering with those and other groups in the ecosystem to bring trials to wherever the physicians and the patients are.”

Arti Bhosale is the co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health. Photo courtesy of Sieve

Houston nonprofit unveils new and improved bayou cleaning vessel

litter free

For over 20 years, a nonprofit organization has hired people to clean 14 miles of bayou in Houston. And with a newly updated innovative boat, keeping Buffalo Bayou clean just got a lot more efficient.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership unveils its newest version of the Bayou-Vac this week, and it's expected to be fully operational this month. BBP Board Member Mike Garver designed both the initial model of the custom-designed and fabricated boat as well as the 2022 version. BBP's Clean & Green team — using Garver's boat — has removed around 2,000 cubic yards of trash annually, which is the equivalent of about 167 commercial dump trucks. The new and improved version is expected to make an even bigger impact.

“The Bayou-Vac is a game changer for our program,” says BBP field operations manager, Robby Robinson, in a news release. “Once up and running, we foresee being able to gain an entire workday worth of time for every offload, making us twice as efficient at clearing trash from the bayou.”

Keeping the bayou clean is important, since the water — and whatever trash its carrying — runs off into Galveston Bay, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. The improvements made to the Bayou-Vac include removable dumpsters that can be easily swapped out, slid off, and attached to a dump truck. The older model included workers having to manually handle trash and debris and a secondary, land-based vacuum used to suck out the trash from onboard.

Additionally, the Bayou-Vac now has a moveable, hydraulic arm attached to the bow of the vessel that can support the weight of the 16-foot vacuum hose. Again, this task was something done manually on the previous model of the Bayou-Vac.

“BBP deeply appreciates the ingenuity of our board member Mike Garver and the generosity of Sis and Hasty Johnson and the Kinder Foundation, the funders of the new Bayou-Vac,” BBP President Anne Olson says in the release. “We also thank the Harris County Flood Control District and Port Houston for their longtime support of BBP’s Clean & Green Program.”