Four Ways Technology is Helping Turn the Tide on COVID-19
COVID-19 is not the world’s first pandemic, but it is the first serious public health crisis to occur in the hyper-connected era of healthtech and digital health.
It has placed the designers and purveyors of technological solutions centre-stage in the fight to contain contagion and the race to find a vaccine.
We look at four ways the sector is helping to lead the charge against coronavirus, and ask if this year is healthtech's opportunity to shine.
1) Artificial intelligence
The advantages of AI in medical science have been understood for some time, but in recent months the technology has been mobilised to demonstrate its value in the fight against COVID-19.
In January, for example, Google’s DeepMind launched AlphaFold, a cutting-edge system that uses the genetic sequence of a protein to predict its 3D structure. Two months later, it released its predictions on the structure of proteins associated with the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2.
This breakthrough, which would have taken years using traditional methods, has helped the research community better understand the virus – and the possible ways in which it can be stopped.
One hurdle the scientific community faces when fighting a pandemic is keeping up-to-date with the sheer volume of research so all relevant learning can be embedded in their work. But with the literature growing rapidly – several thousands of COVID-related papers were published in the first three months of this year – that’s no mean feat.
The Allen Institute for AI has worked with several research organisations to create the AI-driven COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19). It currently contains more than 44,000 scholarly articles on COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and related coronaviruses and is updated daily. Because the dataset is machine-readable, researchers can create and apply natural-language processing algorithms, and ensure they have the information they need to guide their work.
2) Digital training
There’s been much talk of the need to ensure healthcare systems have the capacity to cope with the additional demand being placed on them by the COVID-19 outbreak.
In the UK, tens of thousands of newly qualified and recently retired healthcare workers have responded to calls to help the NHS fill staffing gaps. In response, healthtech start-ups Patchwork Health and Medics.Academy have joined forces to help get them ready.
Medics.Academy, a digital learning platform, and digital staffing service Patchwork Health, have launched a programme of peer-reviewed, interactive e-learning courses. Topics include managing acutely unwell patients and coping with stresses and trauma of working on the frontline.
Dr Johann Malawana CEO of Medics.Academy said: “As soon as the threat from COVID-19 emerged on the horizon, we directed our efforts into developing specialised learning programmes to equip medical professionals for frontline service.”
Patchwork’s CEO, Dr Anas Nadar, said that no doctor should feel uncomfortable or unable to return to service owing to an inability to access the correct training on demand.
3) Remote healthcare
Video consultations are nothing new. They have long been touted as central to the plan to help healthcare systems cope with increasing demand and dwindling resources. Widespread roll out of Zoom- or Skype-based appointments has, however, failed to materialise. Until now.
At the start of March, NHS England asked GPs to conduct as many coronavirus-related consultations as possible over the telephone or video link, and started working with health tech firms including PushDoctor, Babylon, Docly and Visib to help make this happen.
Speaking to The Guardian, Graham Kendall, director of the Digital Healthcare Council, said: “NHS Digital figures show that in 2019 less than one in every 100 of all GP appointments was carried out by online video consultation, and nearly four in 10 people had no access to online consultations at all.
“This isn’t because of a lack of technology, but in many, many cases the decision has been taken not to offer this type of consultation to patients.”
GPs are not the only ones affected by this shift. Up and down the country, long-awaited digital consultation projects in areas as diverse as psychology and physiotherapy are being completed almost overnight, as part of the NHS’ plan to free up capacity and keep people who do not need to be there out of hospital.
From fitness trackers to symptom diaries, health apps have become a regular part of many people’s lives over the last decade. And it looks as though the role of mobile health (mHealth) is about to take on increased significance.
At the end of April, the NHS announced that it was about to start trialling a COVID-19 contract-tracing app at a Royal Air Force base. It uses Bluetooth to log when smartphone owners are close to one another meaning that if one develops symptoms, the others can all be notified.
Another mHealth app gaining traction is the COVID-19 symptom tracker developed by King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals and ZOE. It asks its around two million users to report their health daily in a bid to slow the outbreak and help scientists identify high-risk areas.
Just a few months ago, it would have been impossible to imagine two million people voluntarily logging their health status every day, GPs routinely seeing patients via video conferencing, or professionals widely using e-learning to upskill themselves for frontline healthcare.
The benefits of technologies such as AI, remote healthcare and big data utilisation have been widely debated for some time. Yet the naturally risk-adverse medical community have, quite rightly, demanded proof before scaling up existing pockets of use.
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