Lessons learned: Post-pandemic world opens new opportunities in Montana

Panelists discuss the post-pandemic world and how the lessons learned from the COVID outbreak could open new economic opportunities in Montana during day three of the Big Sky Business Insight Summit in Missoula.

When the nation emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, Montana may have unique opportunities to capitalize off “lessons learned” in the new era, a team of innovators, doctors and economists speculated on Thursday.

Telemedicine may become more common while platforms such as Zoom, Boomset and Facebook may permanently change the way people communicate, and the way business is conducted. The biomedical field will likely grow, and the search for the next vaccine won’t fade any time soon.

The question is, can Montana capitalize off the opportunities by looking forward?

“The hope is, because we’ve just been through this one, that it will be the impetus for us to do what we should have been doing in this pandemic,” said Bryce Ward, founder of ABMJ Consulting.

“Hopefully we make the investment in our public health infrastructure and everything else that goes around it so we’re prepared. But it’s going to be a heavy lift. People will forget quickly because we don’t like to prepare for things we don’t know are going to happen.”

The discussion marked day three of the Big Sky Business Insight Summit, where the state’s entrepreneurs, educators, economists and medical professionals gathered remotely to consider the pandemic and where Montana can best compete as the economy recovers.

“We’ve got to identify the seeds that are likely to land and germinate and do well here so we can make sure they have the resources they need to grow and thrive to create new seeds and new businesses,” Ward said. “That’s what it takes to having a big cluster.”

While the pandemic has battered the state’s economy just as it has the rest of the nation, the impacts here have been smaller than in other places, and the economic recovery may move faster.

But even so, Montana still faces a number of challenges, its size and remoteness being among them. The state isn’t well connected to outside markets, though COVID has shown the ability of new technologies that render distance obsolete.

“I think we have a huge opportunity here to close the geographic divide that we have in an enormous place like Montana,” said Liz Marchi, the head of community engagement for Two Bear Capital. “I think we’ve been forced to do something that, long term, will change our lives for the better.”

The pandemic also has opened new opportunities for innovation, and FYR Diagnostics was quick to step in. The Missoula firm works to detect human and agricultural diseases, though it recently pivoted to provide testing during the pandemic.

“Even learning from what we’re doing right now, it’s hard to predict exactly what we need to do the next time around,” said Chris Booth, CEO of FRY. “There could be new problems. A different virus can effect us in a totally different way and break all the rules we tried to implement this time around.”

Based off the novel coronavirus pandemic that will forever etch 2020 into human history, Booth said a number of things could be done better. He named a more uniformed response from the top down, and better communication between the public and private sector.

“We’ve run into a lot of issues trying to break down barriers between the public and private sector – between the state and a private entity,” Booth said. “We’ve had conversations with certain organizations that have taken months and months to get through the red tape, and still haven’t in a lot of situations. That’s not going to work in a rapid response situation like a pandemic.”

Booth said many agencies, while well meaning, are communicating in solos. Information coming from the state is often different than that at the local level.

“There’s a huge communication breakdown between all the different groups working on this,” he said. “There’s going to be holes. Knowing that now, I think in the future it would help to figure out an actionable plan where all these organizations are brought up to speed. That’s something we can learn from what’s going on right now.”

Despite the challenges that have emerged, the pandemic has brought new urgency and new opportunity to existing practices that weren’t widespread before the virus hit.

Dr. Chelsea Bodnar, the CEO of Montana Pediatrics, said the organization worked to convince doctors in the pre-COVID world that telemedicine was an acceptable practice. When the pandemic hit and the rules changed, telemedicine became essential.

“If you were going to maintain a practice and a connection, you were going to give it a shot,” Bodnar said. “Our community had a leg up because they’d been introduced to this technology and had more advanced tools and were able to comfortably dive into this.”

Bodnar said the pandemic opened the door to telemedicine and brought it farther than it was before. But it also has shown that pivoting during a pandemic isn’t always easy.

“We need better ways of sending emails and connecting and giving people codes. We need to get more sophisticated about what tools we offer at home,” she said. “But we’ve seen a ton of meaningful clinical interactions that reinforces for physicians how important it is to serve patients where they are.”