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COVID-19 accelerated health care innovation, and it isn’t slowing down

December 2, 2021, 10:47 AM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic has displayed the health care technology industry’s ability to flex in the face of a towering global challenge. The virus’s genome structure was mapped within weeks, and vaccines rolled out less than a year after its existence was first confirmed. Since then, billions of people around the world have been vaccinated.

The pandemic fundamentally changed the industry in the process. Investing in the industry and innovation historically required patience and took years, but COVID-19 made accelerated innovation a necessity.

“Overnight, you had to change your care models to be able to reach your patients,” Emily Melton, cofounder and managing partner of Threshold, a venture capital firm focused on health care and tech, said Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

That forced a paradigm shift in the health care industry, as it experienced a culture clash with the tech industry’s “Move fast and break things” ethos. 

“In health care, it’s historically been ‘Move slowly and don’t kill people,” Melton said. But the pandemic upended health care systems’ traditional insistence that fast-paced adaptation wasn’t possible. “The things they said they couldn’t do, they suddenly had to do and did it,” she said.

That paradigm shift is an ongoing process, however.

Currently, many health care services are delivered by legacy providers, which often are weak on technological capabilities and rely on third-party contractors, said Carbon Health CEO Eren Bali, who shared the stage with Melton and Color CEO and cofounder Othman Laraki.

Carbon Health is premised on the idea that health care service providers are limited by outdated technology that inflates expenses. In the next decade, more services will be provided by companies that better utilize existing and emerging tech, Bali predicted.

That shift is inevitable, but the pandemic has accelerated it, he said.

Those fundamental shifts will continue to affect the industry even after the pandemic eventually recedes. At Carbon Health, a primary and urgent care provider, COVID care is becoming a specialty just like any other, Bali said. 

That also holds for Color. With the arrival of the Omicron variant, public health officials in San Francisco contacted Color, which has more than 6,500 COVID testing sites around the U.S., about a case they wanted to investigate on Tuesday

“It turned out that was the first Omicron case in the country,” Color’s Laraki said. “Statistically, there probably have been other cases of Omicron in the U.S. already,” he added. 

The public-private collaboration between the city and Color enabled the presence of Omicron to be quickly verified, he said. “About 30 hours went from when the person got tested to when we knew this was an actual case.”

In addition to its testing sites at offices, schools, and other locations, Color runs about 500 vaccination sites across the country. It hopes to expand the services offered at the sites, as Fortune reported in November. 

Unbundling health care is a major opportunity for innovation, just as ride-sharing transformed our perception of cars from primarily ownership into individual rides, Laraki noted. 

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