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We're in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Big tech is already preparing for the next one.

A new working group from the Consumer Technology Association brings together Facebook, Microsoft and more to plan for future health crises.

A doctor holding a specimen bag

The Public Health Tech Initiative will develop recommendations for future health crises.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

As the U.S. continues its struggle to control the COVID-19 pandemic, a broad coalition of tech and health care organizations are banding together in hopes of helping the country prepare for the next one.

Yes, the next one.

On Monday, the Consumer Technology Association launched the Public Health Tech Initiative, a working group that includes prominent CTA members, including Microsoft, Facebook and Philips, as well as health care players like CVS Health, the American College of Cardiology, and Northwell Health, New York's largest health care provider. The goal of the group is to study how technology has been deployed — both successfully and unsuccessfully — during the current crisis and develop a set of recommendations for future public health emergencies. It plans to produce a white paper with its initial findings and then work with policymakers on implementing proposed changes.

"We heard about some of the issues from the pandemic. The lack of access to care. Lack of access to technology. … We were hearing that some of our public health authorities didn't have ready access to complete and accurate data," said Rene Quashie, vice president of digital health at CTA. "All of those things combined together just made us think that given who our members were, we could actually do something to address this in a meaningful way."

Dr. David Rhew, global chief medical officer of Microsoft, will co-chair the group, along with Dr. Alexander Garza, former chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama and the current chief medical officer of SSM Health, a large health care system in the Midwest.

The group is, in many ways, trying to accomplish what the government has been so far unable to do: develop a unified strategy for deploying technology in a public health emergency. Giants like Apple and Google have dedicated resources to building contact-tracing apps, but the federal government has left it to the states to decide which tool to use, leading to paltry adoption rates across the country. Transferring patient data between health systems, meanwhile, remains clunky at best due to a patchwork system of medical record tools that don't always speak the same language.

"It really shows the fragmented nature of health care and public health within the U.S.," said Garza, who currently serves on St. Louis' pandemic task force. "Understanding how tech can help streamline data flows would be advantageous, not just for the government, but for a lot of different groups."

CTA's members already have plenty of examples of ways their technology has been used during the crisis. Microsoft, for one, has been working with governments around the world, providing cloud infrastructure and access to its AI tools as part of the search for a vaccine. Its health care chatbot became the basis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's symptom tracker and has been used by first responders internationally for large-scale screening. Facebook has been feeding data about communities' mobility patterns to researchers working with local governments since the early days of the outbreak in the U.S. And Doctor on Demand, another member of the initiative, has been a key player in the exploding virtual health market.

But the group was deliberate in reaching beyond its own membership to include voices from the health care industry and elsewhere. "What was unique about this group we put together is it wasn't just tech companies," Rhew said. "We're talking about health care providers, payers, other individuals and organizations looking at this from all different angles. You need that 360-degree look at this problem."

CTA's task force certainly isn't the first of its kind. A similar effort focused on the current crisis and coordinated by the White House in March stumbled, with early members dropping out and a lack of agreement about what to focus on creating fissures within the group's ranks. Garza acknowledged that one of the group's hardest tasks will be determining how to properly scope its work for maximum impact. He's particularly interested in looking at issues like the rise of virtual care, the potential for wearable devices to be used to track patients, and the way information flows from the moment a patient gets tested to the moment their results get sent to health authorities. But he knows there are endless other issues to explore.

"We could write an encyclopedia about this. You have to pick the two or three things that are broad enough and important enough to work on," Garza said. "That can be challenging."

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