What is the future of med-tech innovation in the wake of COVID-19? That was the question addressed during the Advanced Medical Technology Association’s Virtual Medtech Conference, with members of industry providing some insight.

“I think … that this is going to be in many ways a turning point,” changing the way stakeholders look at devices and the evidence supporting them, said Tom O’Brien, of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Ethicon unit, where he serves as president of global strategic marketing within the Endomechanical Business. It also will change the way companies interact with hospitals and patients, he added, noting that companies in the past had made advancements by observing surgeons at work. This has been hampered by COVID-19.

Initially, 2020 looked bright for many organizations. Akhil Saklecha, managing director of Cleveland Clinic Ventures, said that his organization saw great prospects as the year started. “Recently, we had grown in Florida; we had plans to launch a new hospital in London. Some of those things have [been] delayed.” Instead, as COVID took hold, the organization acted on patient and caregiver safety, particularly around personal protective equipment (PPE) and the supply chain.

“PPE was obviously a big issue nationally. We actually took a very different approach to it. So, we continued to look for supply wherever we could,” he said. However, the organization also looked to ways to manufacture its own PPE. To that end, it partnered not only with local and traditional companies, but also 3M, JoAnn Fabrics and distilleries to make hand sanitizer. Working with such disparate groups helped the clinic develop its own PPE.

For its part, J&J felt some heat in terms of supply chain disruptions, particularly in kitting and bundling. O’Brien noted that his company has major facilities in Mexico and a distribution facility in Memphis, Tenn. O'Brien said his company quickly realized that its facilities and supply chain were not immune to the COVID crisis. Restrictions were put in place as people came down with the virus, and manufacturing lines were reconfigured to accommodate them. That had an impact particularly in the second quarter in terms of the company’s manufacturing capability; however, that was balanced by a huge, simultaneous reduction in surgeries.

With worker availability also an issue in its Memphis facility, the company has had to rethink pathways to get products to its customers. And even though the organization’s facilities are highly regulated, he gave credit to the individuals in the supply chain organization who have been nimble in terms of moving resources around and constantly adapting. That’s come as the rate of surgical procedures has gone all over the place over the past few months, falling initially and rebounding in July and August.

Indeed, conducting so-called elective procedures has been a hot topic for hospitals and manufacturers alike. “So, obviously, the word elective is kind of a misnomer,” Saklecha explained. “We tend to think about it as procedures that are discretionary.” Rather, delaying these surgeries leads to a backlog that’s hard to catch up on.

Having patients finally come in for colonoscopies during the COVID crisis has proven particularly problematic, he noted. O’Brien echoed this concern, citing both colonoscopies and diagnostic-type screening procedures. To combat this situation, J&J has launched a campaign for hospital systems, titled My Health Can’t Wait. It aims to reassure patients about the safety of such procedures, as the facilities have policies in place to protect them from COVID. The company reported the launch of the resource last month.

Telehealth efforts

The session also touched on some of the efforts around telehealth, something with which the Cleveland Clinic has gained a lot of experience. For example, during last year’s Cleveland Clinic Medical Innovation Summit, American Well, now Amwell, and the health care organization unveiled a joint venture focused on telehealth.

“Back in March, when we were starting to see the uptick in patient volume and the fact that we were seeing the number of outpatient visits drop, we realized that the shift to telemedicine was going to take an exponential leap forward,” Saklecha explained.

Even as the organization experienced unprecedented demand, it was able to redistribute the workflow of providers to do virtual visits. “Literally, in some cases, 40%, 50% of patient volume was diverted to a virtual environment, and it worked.” For example, they could do presurgical checklists remotely, as well as trials related to remote monitoring.

He went on to note that there is still a gap in terms of remote examination, but Amwell and Tyto Care are looking to change that, particularly with their recently announced partnership expansion. The partners plan to introduce exclusive integrations and new workflows and tools to enhance the ability for providers using the Amwell platform to examine and diagnose patients virtually. Additionally, Amwell will become a reseller of Tyto Care’s integrated devices.

Compared with pre-COVID numbers, Saklecha expects telehealth to remain a popular option. In addition, it’s great for both patients and clinicians, giving the latter the flexibility of where they can be and how they can provide care.

O’Brien added that there is a similar revolution going on with device companies and surgeons in the operating room (OR). “We’ve begun experimenting with and working with technologies that allow us to communicate with the surgeons in the OR remotely.” This offers a degree of safety and permits answering questions when new products are launched. This may not perfectly replace having skilled reps explaining new technologies, “but it’s certainly a new tool that’s certainly here to stay.”