Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician, author of Mama Doc Medicine, and a pioneer in the use of the digital space to provide humanistic doctor-patient information, will be one of five keynote speakers at RISE National, a virtual live-streamed event March 26, 29, and 30. In this interview, Dr. Swanson previews her talk and offers insight into the current landscape as well as the potential for even more innovation to transform the health care system into one that is both patient-centered and provider-centered.

The health care industry—historically slow to adapt and adopt change—has been on the verge of digital transformation for the past decade. But that all changed when COVID-19 spread to the United States last year. The pandemic created an institution-mission priority to change the ways that systems and clinicians deliver care to patients because they had no other choice.

It’s a change that Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., has been advocating for years, dating back to 2009 when she first started a “mommy blog” for a hospital, which eventually led to her becoming the founder and chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2013.

She now serves as chief medical officer at the start-up Before Brands, makers of SpoonfulOne, leading communication and health translation to clinicians and parents to protect against the development of food allergies.

“When we went into lock down a year ago, instead of thinking and dreaming as if digital innovation, from telehealth to telemedicine to digital connection to remote monitoring was pie-in-the-sky and something out in the distance, it became extremely necessary to reach, connect, and serve those who otherwise didn’t feel comfortable coming into the health system,” she said.

Despite the leaps and bounds the industry has made in the telehealth space since then, Dr. Swanson said there is still much to do to create a system we want for ourselves and our families, one that focuses on both the patient and the provider.

“Of course, we have to be patient-centered in any solution that we move forward, and I think that is why digital innovation has had so many tailwinds in the last year. But we also need to be clinician-centered so that these solutions actually create efficiency and create meaning in provider work,” she said.

Use of technology for preventive care

She believes that the industry will begin to think about these types of novel efficient solutions as the 21st Century Cures Act unfolds and consumers become more comfortable looking at their own data in portals and connecting with a care team through text messages or during a telehealth visit. For example, many people have smart speakers in their homes. The industry may be able to use those speakers to help promote preventive health medicine that adds value instead of just taking care of people when they become ill.

“How will we inform, invent, and create solutions that allow people, just like they’re looking at the Kardashians on Instagram and streaming Taylor Swift on their smart speaker, how are we thinking about how they are accessing reminders about their mammograms or their colonoscopies? How are we ensuring that they really understand the opportunity of being vaccinated and how they are accessing during scarcity like a vaccine during the pandemic? How are we helping them?”

Dr. Swanson said health plans have an incredible opportunity to scale these kinds of smart technologies outside of these electronic health record solutions. “We need to advance those, transparencies need to increase, and we need to sincerely ask people whether they are willing to let a smart speaker be in their lives because of the benefit and connection that it might allow them to their doctor,” she said.

She’ll explore these concepts during her keynote presentation at RISE National 2021 on Tuesday, March 30. But consumers are ready, she said. All generations have been deeply changed by Facetime, Google Hangouts, Zoom, TikTok, and Instagram.

“I believe digital technology builds intimacy with people. And I think we know that in our personal lives that we can now ring up three friends from college on a Zoom call and feel a greater sense of connection,” she said. “We do know that we can trust these systems to exchange our laboratory data and connect with our care team. We do know that it makes sense to use our face recognition to remember our passcode and so we get into our patient portal without having to dig into the drawer to find the Post-it note with the passcode.”

Risk of failing to embrace digital transformation

However, she worries that as the world begins to reopen to a new normal at the end of 2021 and into 2022, the health care system itself may take a step backward and return to the incentive of bringing patients back to the facility so they can charge facility fees. But the system must change, or it will be “outcompeted” by what Dr. Swanson describes as thoughtful, inventive, compassionate startups building solutions that help relieve suffering quickly.

“We don’t do things quickly in the health care system very well, and I think that will be the kick in the butt. Who are you going to hire at your organization to continue to prioritize patients and family wants, rather than what the institution thinks it can get away with? We have to start thinking that way. If you don’t, you will be outcompeted.”

And the demand for care will return once the world reopens. “As you are coming out of this pandemic, everybody is going to have to do catch up. We have so many people who are late on their mammograms, so many people who are late on their colonoscopies, so many who didn’t get their annual skin check. We are going to have a burden of disease and late to diagnosis, and we are also going to have to maintain regular preventive services,” she said.

It’s time for organizations to scale solutions so clinicians can talk to their entire patient panel effortlessly. “Give them a TikTok equivalent and let them talk to everyone who has diabetes on their patient panel. Let me communicate with every single mom to a toddler about accidental ingestion. Let me, in the midst of a storm in Texas, remind every single person on my patient panel about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Dr. Swanson’s keynote on digital innovation at RISE National 2021, a virtual, live-streaming event, will be at 12:05 p.m. EST, on Tuesday, March 30. Click here to see our complete list of speakers, the agenda, and how to register.