When COVID-19 hit and people stopped flying early last year, the aviation industry wasn’t the only one left in the lurch. The paucity of planes in the sky frayed vital supply chains that stretched around the world and left many businesses challenged to keep their factories running. Few had less time to find a solution than healthcare companies supplying clinicians on the pandemic’s front lines with critical equipment to diagnose and treat patients.
“Because flights were far fewer, we had to charter aircraft, we had to do things in logistics that we never imagined,” says Kieran Murphy, president and CEO of GE Healthcare. “It demanded huge cooperation, and that’s what I’d like to see going on beyond the pandemic.”
That collaboration extended past manufacturing, into the adoption of telemedicine and efforts to make better use of data and software to improve patient as well as business outcomes for hospitals and other industry players. “We saw a huge switch to digitization from the healthcare systems. Virtual everything: telemedicine, teleradiology,” Murphy says. “I think that will continue into the future. It has been a huge productivity driver, ensuring that we get a high throughput of patients, and of course that will be an area where we will never go back.”
On Friday, Murphy discussed the pandemic’s challenges and opportunities in a video with Mathias Goyen, a radiologist and GE Healthcare’s chief medical officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. They were addressing the online attendees of the European Congress of Radiology, a conference focusing on medical imaging and one of largest scientific meetings on the continent. Goyen said that “virtual care empowered by AI is no longer aspirational; it’s mandatory, a must-have component of delivering healthcare in the future.”
Here are some edited excerpts based on Murphy’s and Goyen’s conversation.
Mathias Goyen: What was 2020 like?
Kieran Murphy: It was an unprecedented year. We saw tremendous pressure on supply chains all over the world. We kicked into action, first in China and then in the rest of the world, to supply computed tomography (CT) scanners, X-rays, ventilators. It posed tremendous demands on GE and others.
MG: How has COVID-19 changed the landscape for healthcare?
KM: It raised the awareness of healthcare immensely, of course. What we are seeing is that everybody is an immunologist now. The positive side that I’m hoping will continue is that patients will be more conscious of how healthcare systems operate. From the healthcare systems, what we saw was a huge switch to digitization. We had customers tell us that they made more progress in two or three months than they expected to do in the next five or seven years. There’s going to be this inexorable rise in the use of remote and digital technologies.
MG: What does a post-COVID-19 world look like, and how is GE Healthcare supporting the sector in using digital technologies and AI to prepare for that future?
KM: I am a great believer in the role of people like ourselves in ensuring that patients get to treatment quicker, through the hospital faster and back to their social setting as quickly as possible. That demands high accuracy in diagnosis and treatment and a very strong monitoring effort. It will require integration of data sets that have been very fragmented up to now.
From the productivity standpoint, we are all going to be dealing with a huge backlog of cancer, cardiac and other patients that’s built up during the pandemic. We all know that backlog is a huge problem. The faster we can get through it, the better, and technologies like command centers that allow you to remove as many of the roadblocks and bottlenecks as possible, that’s really where the industry has to go next. I think that will require collaboration between different players in the industry — the technology players, the electronic medical records (EMR) players and people like ourselves. That’s an exciting development that sped up during the pandemic last year that we need to continue.
MG: What would you tell people who fear that software and AI may take away the personal touch from healthcare?
KM: There’s not a single person who doesn’t want to spend more time with the patient and less time on administration and trying to figure out technology. For example, we must do whatever we can, through the use of AI, to speed up the capture of the image and the analysis of the image. The concept of invisible AI, an invisible friend in the background who is positioning the patient properly and ensuring that there’s a smooth flow of patients through the system and prioritizing the scans that need to be read — that’s the kind of AI that I really see being a huge helping hand. We’re facing a proliferation of AI applications. I don’t think people will want to spend time going through a catalog and thinking about which AI application they should be using. We need to deploy tools in the AI that select the right application at the right time.
We know that healthcare produces vast amounts of healthcare data. It is estimated that the entire body of medical knowledge will double every 73 days. That is unbelievable. On the other hand, 95% of healthcare data is never used.
MG: How can we solve this?
KM: We need to aggregate data so they are in the right place at the right time to get better clinical insights and make care patient-centric. It will require better collaboration between departments in a hospital and cooperation from everybody, including the patient. These data pools can also improve the quality of algorithms that are created. What we see is that unless you have that creation and aggregation of data, algorithms will be trained on a too narrow data set.
MG: What will it take to get us to that future?
KM: This is as much about strategy and culture as it is about technology. We have our command centers in 200 hospitals. They helped change the way they work and empower teams. It’s remarkable to see how they reduce waiting time and bottlenecks. But the human part is incredibly important. We need to make technologies that run invisibly in the background so that everybody can spend more time with the patient and less time trying to set up a mode of scanning on a machine. I feel really excited about modernization when it is about clinicians and machines working together seamlessly, and a culture within the system that’s focused on the patient and focused on productivity. The opportunities here are immense.
MG: What’s your prediction for the future of healthcare?
KM: I’m a natural optimist. The industry is still in the early stages of a very exciting journey. Think about what the industry achieved with COVID-19 in developing vaccines at an unprecedented rate. What drove that sense of urgency was focused effort and an open collaboration mindset. There was a cultural dimension to this that broke down barriers across countries and companies, between governments and companies and regulators. I think that’s what we need to continue here to really fully utilize and leverage the power of the technologies that we are bringing to the table.