One of healthcare’s biggest challenges today is that to what degree do health systems have the digital capacity to engage every consumer and every citizen globally, when and where needed to help them stay healthy. This includes helping to prevent people from getting infected by COVID-19 or managing other chronic conditions. This is the heart of where digital health ecosystems play an important role.
The way in which healthcare is delivered was already evolving at a rapid pace, but the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated this transformation. Digital health technology has played a crucial role in the fight against the novel Coronavirus.
The pandemic saw several countries use integrated digital technology into government-coordinated containment processes such as testing and contact tracing, which, in certain instances, helped in the early flattening of incidence curves.
A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey highlighted that US$250 billion in healthcare spending in the U.S. could shift to virtual care models in the wake of the pandemic. Moreover, a study by non-profit group FAIR Health suggested a 4,000 per cent increase in telehealth claims across the U.S.
This phenomenon is not just restricted to the U.S. but has been seen all over the world. The upscaling of virtual care capacity and telehealth, in the wake of the pandemic, has given rise to a number of new digital health tools such as self-triaging and contact tracing.
“The pandemic has accelerated, detonated the implementation of many technological solutions that had been long struggling to prove their value! That struggle though, mostly came from the lack of vision by the “gatekeepers” of our healthcare systems,” said Dr. Rafael Grossmann, renowned as the world's first surgeon to use Google Glass.
Below we take a look at technologies that are continuing to have an impact in the global effort to curb COVID-19:
Telemedicine has been an effective tool in containing the spread of COVID-19. Virtual care platforms, using video conferencing and digital monitoring, have been used worldwide to reduce exposure to Coronavirus. When implemented effectively, virtual care can increase healthcare access, but possible risks could include misdiagnoses, privacy breaches, etc.
Despite the concerns, the pandemic has shown that there is an important duty today to use technology to make healthcare accessible to anybody. The systems can be designed to assist at an early stage, where it is possible to diagnose a disease earlier on or even help patients with chronic diseases manage their condition.
In Canada, for instance, video visits have reportedly increased from approximately 1,000 visits per day in February to 14 000 per day by mid-May. While in the UAE, a virtual doctor chatbot was launched by the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP) to assess potential coronavirus cases in the country.
At the recently concluded virtual expo Omnia Health Live, Prof Tim Pawlik, Chair of Surgery, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, shared that, previously, his hospital was doing fewer than a 100 telemedicine visits but today they are conducting almost 14,000 of these a month, both telephonic and tele-video. “This has revolutionised how we are interacting with our patients. I believe that many of the patients will continue to prefer these virtual visits,” he said.
However, Prof Pawlik shared that this has raised a couple of issues such as how can hospitals maintain the experience and educational experience of their trainees. The other challenge has been that some individuals might not have access to broadband Internet, especially those who are of a lower economic socio status. “We have to be cognisant about how we roll out telemedicine and telehealth relative to certain social determinants of health,” he stressed.
AI in diagnostics
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been an asset that has facilitated rapid diagnosis and risk prediction of COVID-19. For example, in China, a cloud-based AI-assisted CT service has been used to detect COVID-19 pneumonia cases. This technology reportedly processes CT images in seconds, differentiating COVID-19 from other lung diseases and speeds up the diagnostic process substantially.
Moreover, Sonavi Labs’ Feelix, an AI-enabled digital stethoscope and software to diagnose respiratory conditions, has been to researchers at the American Hospital in Dubai, to build a reference library of clean audio files for the COVID-19 disease.
Ellington West, CEO & Co-Founder, Sonavi Labs told Omnia Health: “We hope that by collecting and analysing this data, we will be able to identify the specific acoustic signature of COVID-19, in the same way, we have been able to validate the technology on pneumonia. If we are successful in validating our classification algorithm on the COVID-19 virus, then we will be able to train all of our devices to detect the disease, providing a dry digital diagnostic solution anyone can use that is rapid, accurate and sustainable.”
The Coronavirus crisis put immense pressure on healthcare workers and hospitals have been overwhelmed by the volume of patients and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), creating a high risk for contracting COVID-19. PPE includes facemasks, gloves, eye protection, and clothing. Hospitals have also faced a shortage of COVID-19 testing swabs and kits, respirators, and ventilators.
According to Dr Paul Frisch, Chief of Biomedical Physics and Engineering, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, 22 per cent of the patients that showed at the hospital required ICU level care while 79 per cent of ICU patients required ventilation.
He said: “At our hospital, we have a 3D printing laboratory running six printers. During the crisis, certain things that came up in the design and development stages. We had a feeling that there would be a shortage of ventilators and supplies such as nasal swabs, N95 masks, and we had to address that in a variety of ways and leveraged our 3D printers to build a stock of these and sent it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval so that they could be used in times of need.”
Many companies were also at hand to address these shortages. For example, NASCAR has a research and technology centre that uses 3D printing to build composite parts for the next generation of stock cars. But in light of the pandemic, the company is using its 3D printers to churn out PPE such as face shields for healthcare workers. Also, Ford worked with GE Healthcare to build air-pressured ventilators, and Chevrolet (General Motors) has partnered with Ventec Life Systems to build ventilators.
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Contact tracing apps
Tools such as migration maps and contract tracing apps, which use mobile phones, have allowed collecting real-time data on the location of people. With this data, machine learning models are being developed to forecast the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and guide border checks and surveillance.
However, contact tracing applications are not without pitfalls. The apps have raised privacy concerns because some need to store user data on central servers and there is a chance of this information being misused. Also, researchers at Oxford University in the UK, suggested that 60 per cent of a country's population would need to use a contact tracing application for it to be an effective strategy.
Robots are becoming commonplace in healthcare today, even more so during the pandemic, as they don’t cough or get ill! Today, robots that are being built can handle multiple different scenarios, such as in assisting and amplifying human efforts in different care tasks. Inside hospitals, robots can be deployed for disinfection, medicine and food delivery, vital signs monitoring, thus helping to significantly reduce the infection risk of personnel.
An interesting example is Heriot-Watt’s Alana system that has been designed to deliver health-related information and support via conversational AI, during the pandemic. Some of its important features are that it can detect myths and misinformation and offers mental health advice. It also only outputs validated sources of information such as from the World Health Organization (WHO).
In a period where staffing shortages are hampering the efforts to contain COVID-19, recruitment has become a major challenge. As the pandemic intensifies, TrueProfile.io – a provider of primary source verification (PSV) solutions – provides access to their database of job-seeking, verified healthcare staff in the GCC via TrueProfile.io Recruiting. It enables hiring managers to access a digital pool of verified medical staff in the GCC who are actively seeking new opportunities.
Additionally, the use of blockchain-enabled platforms has helped in enabling early detection of epidemics, fast-tracking drug trials, and impact management of outbreaks and treatment. The technology has also proven its success in supply chain management and could be beneficial in tracking and tracing medical supply chains.
“The whole push towards digitalisation in healthcare just got accelerated five years from this virus. Where we were six months ago versus where we’re going to be in a year and a half; that’s two years of hyper-accelerated digital development that normally would have taken five to 10 years. We’re going to see a lot more companies developing apps for patient portals,” said Dr Jeff Staples, Chief Operating Officer, United Family Healthcare.
“COVID-19 has been able to accelerate the adoption of many technology solution in the healthcare that have been there for a while including the automation of business processes,” Dr Osama AbouElkhir, CEO of TachyHealth, added. “We saw a wider acceptance and adoption for the future-working environment where machines, algorithms, and robots empower and augment the humans to improve their effeciency, productivity, and wellbeing.”
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Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)
Several advances in technology are driving innovation in medtech that has led to an increase in the number of connected medical devices that can generate, collect, analyse and transmit data. The data, along with the devices themselves, are creating the IoMT – a connected infrastructure of medical devices, software applications and health systems and services.
In China, for example, 5G network powered telemedicine consultations and case discussions offered by experts have allowed for medical treatment and responses to COVID-19. Therefore, there is bound to be accelerated development of the 5G telemedicine in the country, as both doctors and hospital management are leveraging these technologies to reach patients, especially in remote areas.
“We are witnessing a major shift in the healthcare sector as the adoption of IoMT brings forward medical devices and equipment connected to the internet. This has moved us into an era of continuous healthcare enabling real-time monitoring of medical data,” stressed Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, Managing Director of Dubai Science Park.
“We are seeing right now, in the Middle East especially, a huge demand for big data to make decisions, to track patients, and to track the spread of the epidemic using maps. I would say that big data is a new trend that will transform the healthcare industry in the coming years,” said Khalid Ghaloua Adine, Director, Digital Healthcare Industry, Etisalat.
The pandemic has brought new big data-driven practices of infectious disease surveillance to the forefront of efforts to track cases in real-time. The COVID-19 trackers pull data from sources around the world and are helping healthcare workers, scientists, epidemiologists and policymakers’ aggregate information. This will help in information sharing among hospitals, governments and countries in understanding various treatment modalities, and identifying those treatments that are having a better impact.
“This pandemic showed the real power of centralised data for the swift identification of public health risks and emergency preparedness,” highlighted Atif Al Braiki, CEO of Abu Dhabi Health Data Services.