What Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury Can Teach Us About Autism

Healthcare Services Present and Future

Covid-19 is understandably viewed as a crisis in the U.S., with a death toll topping 100,000 amid an economic shutdown that catapulted the nation into an instant recession. Nearly every sector of the economy has been broadsided by its effects. Rippling beneath the surface have been pockets of technological advance and investment opportunities, perhaps nowhere more than in the healthcare sector.

We are witnessing a wave of unexpected innovations in healthcare caused by the pandemic. With staff furloughed to reduce costs and in-person service curtailed, healthcare organizations are discovering new, more efficient delivery models. These include deploying robots for remote patient monitoring, third-party telemetry tools, vastly expanded use of telemedicine and an array of streamlined check-in venues and methods.

Many of these advances will outlive the pandemic, as healthcare providers recognize the time and costs saved by diving deeper into technology. For example, although telemedicine has been around for decades, its sudden and nearly universal adoption during the COVID-19 crisis has revealed more vividly to healthcare executives its benefits. Doctors report that up to 80% of their visits are currently being conducted virtually and that this experience has led them to recognize that a significant percentage of medical issues can be addressed in this way.

Telemedicine has suddenly transformed from being a long-term ‘nice-to-have’ for increasing efficiency and expanding access to an essential requirement for patient triage, diagnostics, and engagement,” say Jonathan Bluth and Adam Abramowitz of Intrepid Investment Bankers.

As volume-based care has suffered under the new paradigm, the long-awaited shift towards value-based care may finally come to fruition. Experts and advisors expect significantly increased attention to be placed on capitation, Medicare Advantage plans, and accountable care organizations going forward, all sparked by the pandemic.

Indeed, if providers can work with payors to secure long-term reimbursement and deploy sustainable clinical model improvements, COVID-19 might redefine the healthcare experience for the better. In general, many payers have loosened restrictions and changed regulations affecting billing during the pandemic to provide for wider coverage of telehealth services.

How will this alter the investment landscape in healthcare? The pause in mergers and acquisitions in the second quarter of 2020 may linger, say Bluth and Abramowitz. “The speed of change and lack of visibility of the scope of the damage and the timing and velocity of the rebound make it difficult to price risk and value assets,” they write.

Let’s consider the impact Covid-19 is having on the prospects of three healthcare sub-sectors: home health, long-term care and autism services.

Home health has been buffeted by the response to the virus, with providers scrambling to maintain distancing in a hands-on care delivery model. Home health agencies have responded with increased telecare visits and more phone and video calls. Phone apps are helping enlist the aid of neighbors by connecting homebound patients to their community for help with grocery shopping, pharmacy pickups and health monitoring. Taken together, these innovations are creating efficiencies in the home health model that can convey benefits to patients and investors after the crisis has ebbed.

The future is bleaker for nursing homes, where 30,000 of the Covid-related deaths have occurred. Costs have exploded as facilities work to meet CDC guidelines, patient loads have plummeted as patients pass away and leave unreplaced by admissions, staff have deserted for health fears and reimbursements have fallen as states rope-in Medicaid expenditures. Occupancy in many homes has dropped below the 80% break-even level and are unlikely to rebound while the coronavirus persists.

For autistic individuals, the crisis has been a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, those with autism may by nature practice social distancing and these new social norms may provide relief and ease anxiety for some of these individuals. On the other hand, disrupted routines particularly affect those with autism, especially kids who may rely on daily support from professionals in their homes and schools. A lack of in-home services and the widespread shut down of clinics leaves children and families without the stabilizing support systems upon which they once relied. In addition, many with autism are least prepared to cope with the social isolation and economic strain. More potent tools delivering care remotely can reshape the delivery of services and benefit those enterprises that act fastest.

Nonetheless, a changing landscape does not mean the industry is doomed. Despite difficulties brought on by shutdowns, in-home and school-based providers are surviving by providing enhanced remote services. While smaller providers are bound to feel a greater strain throughout the pandemic, lean times create more opportunities for add-on acquisitions by larger providers that are more equipped financially to manage the present disruption. In fact, we are already beginning to see this kind of activity, with larger companies buying smaller ones using creative deal structures and existing financial relationships, hopeful to avoid reticent lenders and complicated debt financing. We don’t know how much longer the industry will experience this drastic reshape, but the companies thriving in this current environment are the ones whose buyers and investors have raised their level of scrutiny when it comes to discerning whether these consolidation behaviors are sustainable or provide long-term benefit.

As we monitor the state of the industry in the weeks and months ahead, some questions will help us qualify the changes to come:

  • What telehealth solutions are viable on a long-term basis?
  • How do outcomes from telehealth compare to direct services? Who benefits from telehealth?
  • How has the use of telehealth during COVID changed the service provider model for autism services and to what degree will the model change permanently?
  • Which service providers will blend in-person services with telehealth better?
  • Will this cause the mid-sized providers to start consolidating? (so they can get more scale and take advantage of cost efficiencies.)

In the end, a spirit of innovation is what continues to propel healthcare services forward through this exceptional epoch. While the headlines may portend a stormy future, reasons for optimism remain. The expansion of telehealth to near ubiquity is increasing patient access at a time we need it most. A shift towards value-based care rather than volume-based care is underway, and consolidation activity is gradually starting to stabilize the market for service providers. With the right guidance, healthcare services could emerge from the pandemic stronger and more patient-centric.

Home Healthcare & CoVid-19

Home Healthcare & CoVid-19

Covid-19 has upended life globally, but perhaps no more than for the elderly, children and disabled individuals receiving health care services in their homes, and for the caregivers themselves. Ten million Americans rely on home health services for such disparate health needs as speech therapy, autism services, wound care and personal hygiene.

For those over age 65, who comprise the overwhelming majority of Covid fatalities, the severe consequences of a deadly virus are exacerbated by the isolation it is imposing upon them. While families are sheltering at home together, homebound elderly are most often alone. Sheltering and distancing guidelines may be keeping friends and even family members from visiting.

Social activities, such as attending lectures, going to movies and playing Mah-Jongg with friends, have been curtailed. The result of this is social isolation that leads to an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideations. For those with conditions such as Dementia or Alzheimer’s, there is increased confusion and sadness due to the lack of comprehension and recall about the current situation.

The requirement to isolate and avoid going out makes medical care of the elderly and more fragile populations problematic. For example, while individuals managing health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure may be able to live relatively independently, going grocery shopping, obtaining medications and maintaining the activities that sustain health such as walking and exercise are much more challenging, if not impossible.

For those in residential facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, social distancing may mean being isolated in their rooms alone almost 24/7, with brief interactions from staff to receive food and medicine. The lack of mental stimulation, physical activity and social interaction are harbingers of mental health breakdown, to which the elderly are already more prone. It is sobering to consider that this is the punishment imposed upon prison inmates whose actions suggest they are a danger to others.

With recent changes to the Medicare program addressing the Covid crisis, many hospitals and doctors have pivoted to using telehealth and virtual appointments to see patients, which can address many issues and keep medical care current. Technical challenges are prevalent with many elderly patients struggling to use face-to-face telehealth platforms. Medicare is allowing individuals to receive services via phone, without the visual component, but this certainly has its limitations. Additionally, Medicare has revised the requirements for some coverage decisions, no longer demanding face-to-face visits and allowing patients to receive longer supplies of prescriptions.

Home health care agencies are deploying skilled care to homes for some services, but not others. For example, they are taking samples of body fluids for testing; however, the necessary physical examinations are lacking, assessments for memory loss and functioning are impacted by phone-only options and routine medical exams such as colonoscopies and scans are not being performed. This may result in increased health issues and illnesses down the road.

Meanwhile, health care providers are facing their own challenges. The Centers for Disease Control has issued guidelines for care that include daily temperature checks and personal protective equipment like N95 respirators and latex gloves. Many home health workers fear for their safety and the safety of their families should they bring the virus home with them.

While children appear to be less at risk from the virus itself – they comprise just 2% of confirmed cases in the U.S. and incur mild-to-moderate symptoms 90% of the time – children with significant healthcare needs face daunting challenges. Cloistered at home and without the support structure of school, they are now entirely reliant on their parents and those home care providers who continue to visit. Limited home care may mean health regression or the onset of new health challenges.

Home health care strategies have been forced to shift radically because of Covid-19 and new long-term approaches will be required as the ramifications of the virus linger beyond 2020 into the foreseeable future. For now, its effect on home care patients and caregivers has been profound – and the full extent of it has yet to be revealed.

By: Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Coping with Stress in Unprecedented Times Part 2

Coping with Stress in Unprecedented Times Part 2

In my previous post, I explored the tumult of unusual activity flowing into and out of our brains as a result of the novel Coronavirus and the worldwide response to it. The threat to lives and livelihoods, the near-total curtailment of social interaction and the departure from normalcy – all of these taken together are wreaking havoc with how we think and feel.

Worse yet might be the increased uncertainty that accompanies all this. 9/11 happened over the course of a morning. Pearl Harbor was a rallying point for action. While the devastating emotional and psychological trauma of these events can be lifelong, the events themselves were flashpoints—over in a matter of hours. We were able to begin picking up the pieces and take corrective action more immediately. With Covid-19, we’re stuck inside our homes living this new distanced reality, with serious economic impact for many, for who-knows-how-long.

As I noted in Part 1 (Blog Part 1), experts in the field of psychology and brain science  empathize with the challenges our brains are facing but also remind us that we can use our brains in an intentional way to manage our thoughts and emotions to some degree and create productive habits. We can accept that this is the new normal until it isn’t, remain positive, focus on the good things in our lives, and divert ourselves with creative and meaningful activities.

For individuals with autism individuals, the calculation is somewhat different. Most autistics thrive on predictability and structure, and struggle with change, even changes many would consider small and inconsequential. Having their lives turned upside down, as they are now, falls somewhere between extremely distressing and catastrophic.

For caregivers of children and adults with autism, the need to perform “social distancing” is incongruous. Their services are, by definition, one-on-one and in person. As Leann McQueen, a residential coordinator for the Young Adult Institute in Brooklyn, told ABC News about her organization’s services to young people with disabilities, “People need assistance with personal hygiene. Even being asked to wash your hands can be more challenging.”

Christine Motokane is an articulate self-advocate to whom I spoke when conducting research for my book, Autism Matters. In her blog, Redefining Normal: A Young Woman’s Journey with Autism, she outlines some of the challenges she faces in this extraordinary time. Everything that is familiar to her has closed – her workplace, her favorite restaurants, other non-essential business – even the weekly outings with her support person have suddenly ended.

“I had to spend and celebrate my 28th birthday at home. All of these sudden changes coupled with the fluidity and ever-changing nature of this situation, has caused my anxiety to skyrocket,” she writes.

This is particularly worrisome because anxiety is often a constant state of being for autistic individuals who are hyper-sensitive to stimuli like light and touch. While “social distancing” has relieved many of those with autism of the anxiety about shaking hands or otherwise engaging in unwanted physical contact with others, and may be comforted by the six foot barrier others are maintaining, they must also confront a degree of exacerbated uncertainty that we all find discomfiting but those with autism may be traumatized by.

Autistica, the UK’s leading autism research charity, notes that autistic individuals react to uncertainty by avoiding such situations, by over-preparing for them or by gathering information that might reduce the uncertainty. None of these strategies is well-suited to this crisis because it can’t be avoided, over-preparing can lead to hoarding and gathering information about an unknown can just result in heightened anxiety.

The strategies that I enunciated in the previous post to manage anxiety about COVID-19 probably apply to everyone, inadequate though they may seem. Keeping as much of the normalcy in our lives as possible, creating a routine and some structure to our days and engaging in activities that enable some type of social contact can ward off some of the avalanche of change in our lives.

This reminds me of a story I came across in my research about maintaining the positive therapy momentum for children with autism during COVID-19. One mother, in an effort to keep life as normal as possible for her son, wakes him up at the usual time, has him dress in school clothes, maintains the entire morning routine, ushers him into the car and drives him around the neighborhood for 20 minutes before returning home for “school”.

Unfortunately, many parents have neither the time nor the bandwidth for such an effective regimen, innovative though it is. They are struggling to keep it together themselves, juggling work at home with the intrusions of family and a lack of respite from 24-hour-a-day demands of caring for children and keeping them constructively busy.

For situations like that, it’s important not to let perfection be the enemy of good. There is no playbook for a circumstance none of us has ever encountered before. Any steps families take, even small ones, like maintaining wake-up and bedtime routines, creating regular family fun time (playing games, reading books, etc.), exercising and dedicating time to learning daily, will all help to maintain a sense of routine and normalcy which will accrue to the benefit of all of us, adults and children alike.

Published By:
Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Advisor to Investors in Behavioral Health

Coping with Stress in Unprecedented Times- Part 1

Coping with Stress in Unprecedented Times- Part 1

By Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Pity your brain. This unprecedented epoch we are experiencing is playing havoc with our most vital organ, the one that is designed to act as the air traffic controller of our bodies during the impenetrable fog of a lockdown.

Our brain through our nervous system is constantly evaluating and detecting risk with the ultimate goal being safety. This occurs at a primitive level within our brain without our conscious awareness. The primary element that challenges safety and stability is uncertainty. The brain is wired to detect fear and we have an overwhelming amount of fear-generating information right now.

COVID-19 has brought the world to its knees. First, there is the physical threat of a virus that is undetectable and about which we are learning as it unfolds. Second, is the constant mental anguish caused by the uncertainty about the future, even about tomorrow.

As a result, we are seeing extreme levels of stress, anxiety, and incremental  increases in depression and addiction. The tidal wave of negative information and emotion creates a continuous brain hijack (as the brain works to manage this threat) and overwhelms our cognitive processing. This stress keeps us in a fight or flight state, affecting core brain capacities such as thinking and decision making. Hoarding of supplies and increased aggression in people are some observable results of these affected capacities.

So if you are feeling stressed, anxious, and exhausted, it’s completely normal under these circumstances.

Jump To Acceptance

In fact, Dr. David Kessler, who collaborated with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on her treatise, On Grief and Grieving, says that what many Americans are feeling is grief. He says we have lost our normalcy, our future plans and our connection to others, ironically in a collective grief experience.

Worse yet is the uncertainty that imperils not just our health but our financial stability. We don’t know when this catastrophe will end – could this go on for six months, a year? – and that is flooding many of us with anxiety. Dr. Kessler calls this “anticipatory grief.”

Dr. Kessler recommends that we consider the six stages of grief that his co-author famously enumerated and jump as quickly as we can to acceptance. “We find control in acceptance: I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can work virtually,” he told the Harvard Business Review.

Four Strategies to Tame Stress

Dr. David Whitehouse, the psychiatric medical director for Able To, a leading provider of virtual behavioral health care, told the Total Brain podcast of four keys to confronting the anxiety sparked by the COVID-19 crisis.

He recommends we identify what we are feeling; avoid catastrophizing, i.e., steer clear of talking ourselves into depression; focus on the positive; and engage our creative right brain.

We have about 50,000 thoughts a day, that’s 2,100 thoughts an hour.

Positive thinking has long been known to improve our overall outlook and boost our performance. Barbara Frederickson, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina, has demonstrated that positive thinking opens us to more options than does negative or neutral thoughts. Rather than wallowing in negative thoughts and emotions, simply reminding ourselves that this situation is temporary can have significant salutary effects physiologically and emotionally.

“You can, in fact, drive that negative analytic off the table,” Dr. Whitehouse says.

Physical exercise is an elixir for stress as well. Pushing ourselves physically focuses our attention on the moment and boosts our depression-fighting endorphins. In fact, exercise is often prescribed for patients with mild to moderate clinical depression.

Deep breathing has a similar impact on us physically. It stimulates the vagus nerve, which acts as a crossing guard at the corner of flight and flight. By calming the fight or flight response, the vagus nerve allows our body to relax and our vital signs to settle back to normal. Research shows that our heart can synchronize with our breathing, so that reduced respirations produces a slower heart rate and lower blood pressure.

People who struggle with anxiety often feel that their lives are out of control. In fact, many who struggle with anxiety attempt to control every facet of their lives; when their plans fail, anxiety often comes back with a vengeance.

A relatively simple way to overcome this problem is to establish a routine. Setting a schedule and applying some self-discipline to stick with it allows us to control our daily activities to the extent possible. Adding this structure to daily living can also unlock additional free time to enjoy other things.

There is also one common sense measure we can all take to avoid driving ourselves crazy: limit our exposure to the news. At this point, there isn’t much new to learn about COVID-19 other than that we must isolate ourselves, wash our hands and practice social distancing. All the speculation about how much worse it will get or how long we must wait for normal life to resume, or for the new normal to unfold, produces anxiety without insight. So in this time, limiting exposure to news and information is self-preservation, and while I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend this, less information means more peace of mind.

What these prescriptions have in common is that they are under our control. If we commit to accepting the current circumstances, thinking positively, challenging our bodies and minds, avoiding the news and simply taking a deep breath, we can calm our brains and reduce our psychic pain.