Applying digital healthcare to COVID-19
Beyond robotic nurses, there are many other ways digital technology is coming to the fore as COVID-19 tests healthcare systems everywhere.
“A lot of medicine currently relies on a physician identifying a likely illness based on symptoms, but even the most adept and experienced doctor won't have seen every rare disease and condition," said Bo Crowell in a 2019 interview. “How can we expect them to instantly identify something new, like the novel coronavirus?” he added last month. And, he says, that’s where AI comes in.
COVID-19 was first detected outside of China not by physicians but by a Canadian health monitoring platform called BlueDot. The platform uses an AI-driven algorithm that scours foreign-language news reports, animal and plant disease networks, and official announcements to give its clients advance warning to avoid danger zones - like Wuhan in early January.
AI may also be able to help better protect, and reduce the load on, physicians in the front line through more sophisticated and rapid detection of COVID-19 patients. Chinese company Infervision has developed an AI program that can quickly detect lesions of possible coronavirus pneumonia from a lung CT scan, helping doctors make a faster judgement about a patient’s condition. While a manual read of a CT scan can take up to 15 minutes, AI can help read the image in 10 seconds. In the UK, technology company behold.ai has developed similar technology with their ‘red dot’ algorithm, which can be applied to x-rays, rather than CT scans. The company is partnering with Wellbeing, operators of the UK’s most widely-used Radiology Information System currently in 700 locations across the UK.
“This partnership would enable fast processing of the high volume of chest x-rays required in diagnosis of COVID-19, thereby easing pressure on the NHS,” says Julian Feneley. He notes that in the US, the red dot algorithm has been approved for triage of pneumothorax (collapsed lung) but not yet specifically for COVID-19.
In the lab, technology is playing a role in better identifying and understanding disease. Reading the COVID-19 genome allows researchers to monitor how the virus is changing and provides a basis for evolving the diagnostic tests and developing a vaccine. While a vaccine is expected to take up to 18 months to develop, this is a much shorter period of development time than has been required previously. Chinese scientists were able to publish the COVID-19 genome just after a month after the first case of pneumonia was reported. By contrast, during the SARS crisis in 2002, this process took many months.
Technology is being used to manage the outbreak too. In Israel, a company called Oxitone has created an Apple Watch-style device that could feasibly monitor the health of large quarantined populations - predicting illness early and sending medical care where it’s needed most.
In Singapore, the government has recently launched an app called TraceTogether to identify people who have been within 2m of coronavirus patients for at least 30 minutes, using wireless Bluetooth technology. If a user gets infected, the authorities will be able to quickly find the other users he has been in close contact with, allowing for easier identification of potential cases and helping curb the spread of the virus.
The fast pace of these changes has implications for privacy and data protection too and leads to some important questions about individual versus public health. “As a society, we are going to have to grapple with the trade-offs of the privacy of our personal healthcare vitals and data versus the common good,” says Crowell.
The post-COVID-19 world
‘Nobody knows what the future holds’ is a truism that has been harshly illuminated by COVID-19. But both Bo Crowell and Julian Feneley say that the crisis will have a transformative effect on the way we think about, and manage public health, and that health technology – already growing apace – will come into further sharp relief as the crisis subsides and we meet the new normal.
“The way we engage with the healthcare system, and more importantly with our health care, will change dramatically over the coming years,” says Crowell. “With real time access to data and virtual providers, healthcare consumers will become much more active participants in how healthcare is directed and consumed.”