COVID-19 will require long-term and short-term solutions
By Victoria Fram & Rob Tashima
A pandemic, by its nature, demands immediate reactions. The exponential growth of a fatal disease like coronavirus means that individual people, households, businesses, and governments all need to move quickly to restrict transmission while also preparing for the longer-term impacts we will experience, and thinking about how we increase our preparedness to better handle these events in the future.
We’re seeing that play out now. Sometimes those reactions take the form of wild market reactions, such as price gouging for hand sanitizer and masks, but more often they look like prudent precautions while we continue to gather more information, such as conference cancellations, travel bans, remote work protocols, and guides on how to wash your hands.
Underlying the immediate responses of reducing transmission and adapting to life in the time of social distancing, the spread of a virus like Covid-19 reveals bigger gaps in our societies and our economies. Concerns over infectious disease transmission highlight the perils of low insurance coverage, unsafe hygiene practices in nursing homes, limited government resourcing for pandemic prevention, poor support for frontline health workers, and the lack of a national paid sick leave allowance.
Addressing these underlying issues is going to require large-scale initiatives, policy change, and significant resources from governments and big businesses, which have the capacity to drive change at scale. Yet it’s often the case that the spark for these ideas comes from smaller ventures that are able to test and grow more targeted solutions, and can put them into practice quickly. While it’s easy to be discouraged by the lackluster response to coronavirus from our biggest institutions, we can also find inspiration in the creative responses coming from the startup community.
One example is digital health startup Rimidi. Rimidi is a cloud-based software platform that helps clinicians integrate patient-generated health data from devices into an electronic health record to better target treatments for chronic disease.
On Thursday, Rimidi announced a rapid-response plan to help health systems reduce the spread of the virus in healthcare settings. The company will send a short screening survey to all users, inquiring about their symptoms and recent travel. If a patient shows signs of exposure to COVID-19, the app will direct patients to the appropriate next steps, which could be to visit a separate location other than their original appointment, or to call a specific number to receive guidance.
Rimidi’s founder, Dr. Lucienne Ide, believes that this survey can help reduce the spread of the virus in emergency rooms, which is a common place where viruses can spread. “One of the greatest challenges in China and across other countries that faced early COVID-19 outbreaks has been hospital-based transmission,” she says. “With the app, we can help keep potentially infectious individuals from exposing other patients or staff in the healthcare system in waiting rooms, emergency rooms, or triage before they are identified and separated.”
Another example of a startup responding to the crisis is Certintell. Certintell is a cloud-based telehealth platform that helps safety-net providers like members of the California Primary Care Association to reach underserved populations through telehealth. The company’s solutions help the most vulnerable populations remain in touch with doctors to assess their condition, while avoiding the risk of unnecessarily going into a medical facility where they might be exposed to the virus. House Bill 6074, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Act, seeks to expand the scope of telehealth use in Medicare, recognizing the urgency of enabling access to services like Certintell during this demanding period of care.
Rimidi and Certintell’s solutions both seek to reduce transmission and care for vulnerable populations. Another company, NurseDash, addresses the shortage of healthcare workers, enabling facilities to fill nurse staffing gaps more quickly. Particularly as our health systems experience even greater stress during this outbreak, tools that help reduce friction in adequate staffing, and prevent critical health workers from overwork and transmission themselves are essential.
In the midst of uncertainty about when life as we know it will resume, we also need to think about adaptation so that the economy, education, and productivity don’t all grind to a halt. Education solutions like Pear Deck can apply their technology to keep classes going and reduce isolation for students whose schools are shut down.
Of course, startups cannot take on enormous problems like COVID-19 or healthcare disparities alone. These solutions will help in reducing transmission and adapting to life amidst the uncertainty while we continue to understand and respond to this virus. Bigger institutions, from government agencies to multinational corporations, also need to get involved in supporting these solutions, helping them scale, testing them in new scenarios, and rolling them out to customers.
And ultimately, we need to take the lessons from these emergency responses to better understand and invest in long-term solutions to increase our preparedness. Health crises like this are a reminder of how interconnected we are; how designing solutions in an inclusive way for the most vulnerable populations benefits everyone; and how as the challenges of the future keep adapting, our responses to them need to, too.
Victoria Fram is Managing Director at VilCap Investments, and co-founder of Village Capital. Rob Tashima is Chief Growth Officer at Village Capital. Thanks to Ben Wrobel for input on this piece.