Digital health tools crucial to managing COVID-19

digital health responds to coronavirus

Date: 20th March 2020

Digital health tools will be vital in helping health services across the world tackle COVID-19.  Furthermore, leading health technology specialists believe that the adoption of digital solutions will be key to easing burdens and limiting the spread of coronavirus, and will change the behaviour of patients and clinicians permanently.

Whilst some countries are already embracing digital healthcare, others have been slow to adopt.  So what digital transformations will be shaping how we fight coronavirus and our future healthcare landscape thereafter?

Introduction and expansion of telehealth

Telehealth is already part of the patient journey for some in the most developed countries such as the US.  However, its implementation in other countries is now hastening in response to the current outbreak of coronavirus in efforts to maintain social distancing, and it is likely to remain once the pandemic is over.  With growing concerns about COVID-19 and the ability of the health services to cope, many countries are now expanding their telehealth coverage, whilst others are trying to introduce the concept effectively for the first time.

One company, accuRx, a UK-based company has announced two new telehealth products that they have developed  in response to the coronavirus outbreak; one that enables video consultation and the other for pre-appointment screening, and both have been made freely available to GP practices and NHS organisations (in the UK).  It is hoped that ‘going digital’ in this way will help minimise the spread of COVID-19 and support routine service delivery.  The company are also looking to develop a version for hospital staff to conduct outpatient appointments which may prove crucial in keeping resources available for those that need it the most.

Symptom trackers and chatbots

The use of symptom trackers and chatbots is another interesting area being applied during the coronavirus response. These techs allow algorithms to be created and adjusted as more is learned about the coronavirus. With information changing rapidly, it is crucial for systems to be updated regularly and one Finnish-based company, Klinik Healthcare Solutions, is doing just this.  They are helping the UKs NHS keep their health professionals safe with their online triage service, Klinik Access.  This digital service is based on a medical algorithm – which is continuously updated to recognise coronavirus symptoms -meaning that patients can be diagnosed more accurately through remote consultations.

Remote monitoring

Whilst these digital options may help patients access health services remotely, it is also possible that home monitoring and medical hand held devices could be adapted to increase home care for self-isolated patients. Remote patient monitoring is fairly well-established for managing certain chronic conditions, and this, along with devices such as smart watches, may be adaptable for spotting the signs of coronavirus and for subsequent remote monitoring of patients.

One company, Biofourmis, based in Boston, US, are using cutting-edge wearable and artificial intelligence technology to accelerate disease surveillance and interventions in Hong Kong.  Their tech is being used to remotely monitor coronavirus infected and suspected patients, and they can apply personalised predictive analytics to help their patients.

digital health responds to coronavirus

Alternative digital applications

Other digital innovation companies are also looking to help contain the virus with creative applications of data and technology.  Klick Health based in Toronto, Canada, have been supporting the implementation of COVID-19 checklists into Dock Health – a healthcare task management platform – in collaboration with the Boston Children’s Team.  They have taken resources from the Centers for Disease Control and distilled them down to actionable, team task lists that can be deployed immediately.  Other leading US health authorities are adapting their guidelines for their own use and it is hoped the measures will help limit the spread of the disease.

They have also been working with Mapbox on data visualisation efforts, this collaboration led by John Brownstein and his Harvard team, has resulted in a COVID-19 health map.  It is hoped this new visualisation system will educate and inform people about how the COVID-19 outbreak is occurring and where it’s occurring – thus providing crucial up-to-date information for limiting exposure in such regions.

However, Klick, like to think differently and they are also exploring other ideas to minimise the virus spread, including the possibility of using digital methods to determine the sound of a COVID-19 cough compared to the sound of a ‘regular’ cough. Other ideas include, a “don’t touch my face” app which would enable teams to challenge each other to compete on who can avoid face touching the longest in live meetings! And lastly, the possibility of developing functionality that enables a patient diagnosed with COVID-19 to quickly share all their GPS location data in order to expedite tracing.

Tracking devices are also being used in hospitals on staff and patients. Companies such as Infinite Leap, based in North Dakota, US, are using data collected by Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) to generate contact tracking reports.  This allows healthcare organisations to take necessary steps in minimising the spread of coronavirus.  If a patient is tested and diagnosed as carrying COVID-19 staff can evaluate which other people in the hospital may have been exposed in waiting areas or exam rooms for example, and then further steps can be implemented, such as quarantining those at risk, or sterilising potentially contaminated equipment.

Of course many of these digital applications rely on suitable infrastructure which is just not available in some countries.  However, digital help is still finding ways to inform people.  South Africa’s Department of Health has launched a robust coronavirus website, with a range of resources and up-to-date information including a WhatsApp-based helpline.  It disseminates accurate and rapid information about COVID-19 from the National Department of Health to the South African public. It includes a helpdesk with automated response and triage to answer queries, it was used in a similar manner by the BBC during the Ebola outbreak.

Embracing digital tech

It is clear – that if implemented effectively – digital technology can play an important role in helping to alleviate the global burden that COVID-19 is currently presenting to the world.  If digital applications can be leveraged with more accurate, well-informed decision-making processes, many lives could be saved, and those most vulnerable in our communities could be better protected.

However, whether these digital applications can cope with the sudden unprecedented surge in demand, remains to be seen.  There are already reports that patients are overwhelming telehealth services.  Although this is also accompanied by companies racing to upgrade their technical systems to handle the influx of patients, along with increases in the number of practitioners delivering remote consults.  With such a wide range of digital techs becoming available, it is hoped that digital technologies will work to lessen the impact of the pandemic and strengthen the emergency systems.