Dr. Charity Dean is a surgeon who also specializes in tropical diseases. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s entering the national spotlight for her vital contributions in tracking the COVID-19 pandemic, when few resources were available. We often write about technology innovations and healthcare. Yet what Dean has accomplished offers a unique combination of the two worlds, which don’t always mesh. The pandemic exposed the lack of tools available to help the U.S. government trace the spread of the virus, including its movements and mutations. So Dean helped develop a model, now a subscription-based software, that opens new frontiers for medical professionals in preventing, detecting, and containing disease outbreaks in the future. But her work goes beyond that, incorporating natural disasters and predicting the healthcare staffing needs of specific regions. These are breakthrough efforts worth exploring in our industry.
The Public Health Company
Dean, formerly an officer with the California Department of Public Health, launched the Public Health Company (PHC) on April 29, 2021. It’s the first company that offers a platform to protect businesses and communities from infectious disease. PHC announced that it closed an $8 million seed funding round including investments from Venrock, Verily, and Sweat Equity Ventures. According to PHC’s press release:
"The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced how disruptive uncontained disease outbreaks can be to business operations, the normal functioning of society, and the health and well-being of millions," said Dr. Charity Dean, CEO and co-founder of PHC. "But today most organizations still take a reactive instead of a proactive approach to the risk management of communicable disease, and most companies just don't know where to start when it comes to balancing keeping their people safe with being able to operate. We founded PHC to help organizations manage that risk."
As Dean explained in her interview with Connie Loizos of TechCrunch on May 11, PHC is incorporating the genomic variant analysis—the fingerprint of the COVID virus as it mutates and migrates through a population—with epidemiology investigations. This information is combined with the traditional data from local public health officials. Then, everything is put into a platform with tools that are intuitive and accessible to better inform decision makers.
“You don’t have to have a mathematician and a data scientist and an infectious disease doctor standing next to you to make a decision; we make those tools automated and readily available,” Dr. Dean said. The solution benefits private and public sector clients alike.
“We’re engaged in a number of different partnerships where this is of incredible service to governments,” Dean told TechCrunch. “But they are as useful, if not even more useful, to the private sector because they haven’t had these tools. They don’t have a disease control capability at their fingertips and many of them have had to essentially stand up their own internal public health department, and figure it out on the fly, and the feedback that we’re seeing from private sector businesses has been incredible.”
In a nutshell, Dr. Dean and her Public Health Company have achieved the creation of a new niche in commercial and government business operations: disease-related risk management.
“The risk management of COVID-19 is going to look very different in each one of those locations based on: how the virus is mutating in that location, the demographics of their employees, the type of activities they’re doing, [and] the ventilation system in their facility,” she said. “Trying to grapple with all of those different factors . . .is something that we can do for them through a combination of our tech-enabled service, the expertise we have, the modeling, and the genetic analysis.”
Climate Change and Changing Healthcare Needs
Prior to launching the Public Health Company, Dr. Dean was pioneering equally groundbreaking public health models for the state of California. The health-related byproducts of climate change were a primary focus for her, most evident in the increasing outbreak of wildfires that have wreaked havoc on the Golden State.
Although many people might not draw a connection between climate change and healthcare or disease, they share a striking number of similarities and factors. As Sarah Moore, M.Sc., wrote in News Medical, climate change is already a catalyst in the pandemic:
“COVID-19 is known to impact particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, causing severe respiratory disease, and climate change affects air quality, drinking water, food supply and shelter - all factors that are associated with health. Climate change is expected to cause around 250,000 additional deaths annually between 2030 and 2050.”
If the pandemic returns, possibly due to a new variant, the hardest hit areas will be those already plagued by climate problems, exacerbating the delivery and accessibility of healthcare.
In 2019, months before COVID-10 hit, Talya Meyers described Dr. Dean’s work in her article for Direct Relief, a global humanitarian aid organization. As a health official for the state, Dean helped establish the California Building Resilience Against Climate Effects project, otherwise known as CALBRACE.
“They developed a number of resources for local health departments presenting, essentially, indicators looking at which people, which geographic regions, are at a higher risk of adverse health effects from climate change,” Dean explained. “And we at the state, our hope is that we can provide data, expertise, indicators, outlines of action plans, for different regions and different health departments in California.”
“Children, pregnant women, the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, they’re significantly more impacted by those disasters,” she added.
Dean ended this 2019 interview with an eerily prescient observation: “The H1N1 pandemic of 1918 was over 100 years ago now. The world is overdue for a pandemic like that, whether it’s influenza or something else. And in public health, we know that we have to be prepared for that. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Why PHC’s Work Matters to the Staffing Industry
Apart from the rampant progress of the disease and the consternation surrounding how little we knew about it, what was the most visible impact of COVID-19? You guessed it, the workforce. The pandemic put American jobs in danger, the government rushed to support workers with Emergency Paid Sick Leave legislation and the CARES Act, and the news from all media generally seemed centered on the economic pitfalls of the outbreak.
Healthcare workforce concerns escalated, as one would expect. In our post about refining the process for building nursing float pools, we examined the hobbling outcome of stress and fatigue on caregivers dealing with COVID-19: “The average national turnover rate for nurses is typically 17% annually, with some regions reaching as high as 40%. The pandemic has had a profoundly detrimental impact on those figures. We now confront the worst nursing staffing shortage in decades, with 60% of nurses and 20% of physicians preparing to exit their professions directly because of COVID-19. Analysts project these departures to cost individual hospitals an average of $5 million in turnover per year—about $137 billion overall.”
Travel nursing, already a complicated profession, took on new complexities as demand across different cities, states, and hospital systems grew—sometimes in sudden or unexpected degrees.
All of these issues challenged the workforce solutions industry in varying ways. But imagine what a predictive modeling platform could offer our staffing organizations, Managed Services Providers (MSPs), and clients, whether commercial or federal.
- Potential staffing shortages or risks could be determined prior to a potential emergency, allowing for more robust planning and preventative measures.
- Areas most likely to be affected by nursing shortages could be identified, allowing staffing agencies to begin building candidate pipelines or float pools, while strategically planning for the deployment of travel nurses.
- Proactive solutions for protecting physical offices or transitioning to telework could take place before the onset of a disaster or disease, allowing for a less harried and more orderly transition that minimizes disruption.
- Staffing agencies could prepare by developing remote candidate pools to fill emergency staffing needs in rural areas or regions where the population faces greater health risks, and where shortages would be more likely to occur.
In short, the more we know and the more we can anticipate through predictive data, the better we can safeguard our communities, our economy, our workers, and their livelihoods.