Case Study

PandemicX Startups Go to the White House: Policy Recommendations from Companies Responding Innovatively to Health Inequities  

On Monday, April 4, 2022, nine companies from MassChallenge HeathTech’s PandemicX cohort met with representatives from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

This meeting was part of the administration’s initiative titled Community Connected Health. According to a brief written by Dr. Carrie Wolinetz, OSTP Deputy Director for Health & Life Sciences, and Dr. Jackie Ward, OSTP Assistant Director for Community Connected Health “Community Connected Health combines digital health technologies and community-based approaches to care to lower the barriers to health care access and provide healthier lives for all Americans, especially those currently underserved. While the use of technology in health delivery is key to broadening access, technology alone isn’t enough. Because as much as we are learning from the pandemic about how telemedicine and digital health technologies can reduce patient travel cost and wait times, we are also learning about technology’s shortcomings, and disparities in access to it.”

PandemicX was created to do just that—convene the public sector and the innovation community, uniting health equity goals with impactful solutions. 

PandemicX is co-led by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT and involves using digital tools and publicly accessible data to eliminate disparities and tackle drivers of inequity exacerbated by COVID-19. The program is managed by MassChallenge HealthTech.

There are 15 PandemicX startups, focusing on challenge areas including health equity by design, national public health solutions, behavioral, mental, and violence prevention, socioeconomic outcome indicators, and community resilience. They have gone through four months of curriculum, mentorship, and exhibition events, meeting key federal stakeholders as they explore areas of opportunity. 

The meeting with the White House was an exciting opportunity for the startups, and MassChallenge was proud to support them. Several themes emerged from the startups, with many in agreement on policy changes they would like to see. 

Below are four key takeaways, written by the startups themselves:

Drive Community-Centric Innovation

By Cynthia Orofo, CEO + Co-Founder, Culture Care Collective:

The role of community in healthcare delivery has been increasingly recognized for its significant socioecological influence on chronic disease management and overall health outcomes. 

Better understanding the role both community and culture play in the disease management process is very important. Additionally, cultural differences among patients and providers have in part contributed to care disparities. Bridging the relevant gaps in these entities is critical to improving self-management processes, especially among marginalized patient populations. Although there has been a historic separation of medicine and community in the U.S. health system, there is an increased call for community-clinical linkages and the clinical integration of community health workers (CHWs) as highly effective mediators of health outcomes. 

Furthermore, innovators who have both the personal identity that mirrors their target community and the professional experience in promoting health in that community, are uniquely poised to maximize the reach, adoption, and maintenance of community-centric innovations. As both a critical care and public health nurse, I personally have witnessed equitable care gaps in both settings. By leveraging our team’s professional and lived experiences, Culture Care Collective has merged the two worlds of community care and traditional medicine to create community-centric innovation that addresses the social determinants of health comprehensively.

Develop Incentives and Different Funding Models to Support Access to Quality Virtual Care

By Mike Hatfield, Chairman and Co-Founder of Carium:

Limitations on coverage and reimbursement of virtual care are some of the biggest barriers to access. The sustained, increased utilization of virtual care over the past two years demonstrates the demand, value, and need for permanent federal virtual care policies that support reimbursement. 

Based on our experiences in the virtual care technology space, we’ve seen the FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program and HRSA grants help defray the cost of implementing telehealth and begin to bridge the digital divide in healthcare. We support policies that encourage virtual and hybrid models of care with a particular emphasis on equitable, proactive, and preventative care.

Along with PandemicX start-ups, HealthOpX and ManagingLife, Carium suggests initiatives that:

  • Support a multidisciplinary care approach
  • Promote community-centric innovation and integration
  • Establish incentives based on health outcomes

Support Standardized, Responsible Data Collection and Exchange

By Dr. Steven Moyo, CEO + Co-Founder, Welfie:

At Welfie, we firmly believe that personal and population health data collection, utilization, and valuation should be ethical, transparent, and standardized. We call for systemic changes to be made to provide regulatory and compliance guidelines that ensure that health data aggregators and conveners operate in a data exchange where individuals and organizations can opt-in to share their deidentified data and share in the value created. Whether that value sharing is technological, pharmaceutical, or monetary, it is imperative that communities that are often left out of health and technological innovation be centered in creating future systems of population health. 

The foundation and success of such an exchange lies in trust. Value created must be tangible, meaningful, and equitable in its distribution to communities of color, and underserved communities. Further, exchanges should be traceable with the government, academic, journalistic, pharmaceutical, medical, commercial, and charitable organizations that may use this type of data to create systems of change being accountable and auditable.

We are not alone in this call to action. We are joined by organizations like Opeeka that call for certification of AI solutions to ensure they are equitable and traceable. We area also in alignment with  Patientory, a company leading the development of such an exchange and creating patient-centric secure, decentralized networks for patient engagement in research and population health. 

By Chrissa McFarlane, CEO + Co-Founder, Patientory:

While the collection and standardization of healthcare information increased in urgency during the pandemic, it is important that network effects are created and supported to enable active collection of new data methodologies especially as it relates to social determinants of health. 

Frameworks incentivizing these structures are key in establishing the foundation for meaningful data exchange. 

Reframe the Agenda and Spur Innovation that Effectively Improves Care

By Colleen Leung, CEO + Founder, Unmute:

As the Founder of Unmute, a mental health company where we match patients to the right therapist using machine learning algorithms, we acknowledge that the technology for telehealth exists, however one of the major barriers we face in connecting patients to the right care is not technology based, but rather systemic. 

Due to limited cross-state therapist licensure capabilities, patients can only match to therapists who are licensed in the state they are physically in. This has impacted today’s supply and demand imbalance for therapists, thus leaving patients with limited options, all while the number one indicator of therapeutic success is the patient-therapist fit. 

During our discussion with the White House, it was also recommended by Tahir Janmohamed of ManagingLife, a company that empowers Americans with chronic pain by tackling the opioid epidemic, that there is a need to reframe problems like the opioid crisis as effective pain management is a central pillar and not necessarily cutting opioid usage.

What’s Next for PandemicX?

As MassChallenge HealthTech’s 2022 cycle concludes, the PandemicX cohort will have final sessions with representatives from The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, and the FDA’s Digital Health Center of Excellence.

They will also participate in two Demo Days in late May, sharing their knowledge and innovations with healthcare industry partners. These are public events hosted by HHS, and anyone interested is welcome to attend (register here). The startups are poised for impact, and we’re eager to watch them continue to grow once the 2022 PandemicX cohort finishes the program ends!