When the year 2020 was near, we had planned for the start of an exciting decade in medicine and science. The anticipation was anchored in the development and maturation of several digital technologies that can be applied to tackle major clinical problems and diseases.
The digital technologies we are talking about here include the internet of things (IoT) with next-generation telecommunication networks like 5G, big-data analytics, artificial intelligence uses deep learning, and blockchain technology.
These technologies are highly interrelated: the penetration of the IoT in hospitals and clinics helps in the establishment of a sophisticatedly interconnected digital ecosystem, enabling real-time data collection at scale, which could further be put to use by AI and deep learning systems to better understand healthcare trends, model risk associations and predict outcomes based on the empirical data.
Further, the blockchain technology has the ability to enhance this by creating a back-linked database with cryptographic protocols and a network of distributed computers across various organizations, integrating p2p networks by making sure that data are copied in multiple physical locations, backed by state-of-the-art algorithms ensuring the data are secured but not untraceable.
Everything is interconnected and has the potential to enhance the other.
The present scenario
We are four months into 2020 and the world is facing an existential global health crisis: the outbreak of a novel coronavirus–caused respiratory disease (COVID-19). As we developed the knowledge of COVID-19, eventually it seems that with increasing evidence that it is less deadly than initially thought (3.4% Mortality Rate estimate by the World Health Organization), however it is more contagious (More than 2,500,000 total cases worldwide as of mid April).
The overall impact of COVID-19 will most probably be far greater than that of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS outbreak in 2003. Considering globalization and the relative importance of China in 2020 in terms of world trade and travel, the spread of Novel Coronavirus is faster than anticipated.
Now comes the question in picture, a rather important one which all of us have been asking. How can this global pandemic, the new crisis in 2020 be tackled? How does this outbreak differ from the SARS epidemic in 2003?
In order to weather this storm, many countries took the classic path of infection-control and public-health measures laid down by reputed organizations in order to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The same methods were used to control the SARS outbreak back in 2003.
The methods of battling against this virus range from stringent quarantine measures in China to exhaustive and detailed contact tracing methods with hundreds of contact tracers that were carried out in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea etc.
But, these measures alone may not be effective in 2020 for tackling the scale of COVID-19.The question technology experts are asking is that, can new digital technology be used for COVID-19?
Let us explore the potential application of the interrelated digital technologies like IoT, big-data analytics, AI and blockchain in order to enhance the existing and most important public-health strategies for tackling COVID-19:
- Surveillance, monitoring, detection and prevention of COVID-19
- Mitigation of the impact to healthcare indirectly related to COVID-19.
How technology can help in surveillance, monitoring, detection and prevention of COVID-19
IoT has the potential to provide a platform which allows public-health agencies to get access to data for monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider the website ‘Worldometer’. It provides a real-time update on the actual number of people known to have COVID-19 worldwide, along with daily new cases of the disease, disease distribution by countries and severity of disease. The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University brought together a few experts who developed a real-time tracking map for following cases of COVID-19 across the world. It uses the data provided by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC, the World Health Organization or WHO, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC).
Next, big data provides immense opportunities to perform modeling studies of viral activity and for paving the path for individual country healthcare policy-makers to upscale preparation for the outbreak. In order for that, the data from the Official Aviation Guide, the location-based services of the Tencent and, the Wuhan Municipal Transportation Management Bureau, all together carried out a modeled study of ‘nowcasting’ and forecasting COVID-19 disease activity inside and outside China that can come in handy to the health authorities for public-health planning and control worldwide.
Similarly, using the WHO International Health Regulations, the State Parties Self-Assessment Annual Reporting Tool, Joint External Evaluation reports and the Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index, it was possible to assess the preparedness and vulnerability of African countries in battling against COVID-19. This helps in raising awareness of the respective health authorities in Africa to better prepare for the viral outbreak.
Also, with the help of digital technology countries can significantly scale public-health education and communication to the general public. For instance, in Singapore, the government partnered with WhatsApp in order to broadcast and send updates to the public about COVID-19 and government initiatives. The most popular social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are currently being used by healthcare agencies to provide real-time updates and clarify uncertainties with the public.
On top of that there are some facial-recognition companies like SenseTime and Sunell, who have adopted thermal imaging–enabled facial recognition to help identify people with an elevated temperature at various screening points across China..
Last but not the least, Artificial Intelligence or AI along with deep learning capabilities possess the power to enhance the detection and diagnosis of COVID-19. As of now, for the globe, the overall need to provide easy access to accurate and low-cost tests for the diagnosis of COVID-19 is a major challenge. There are many peripheral hospitals in China and other developing countries like Asia, the Middle-East and Africa who do not have the tests or resources to precisely bifurcate COVID-19 from the ‘common flu’.
To say, in Indonesia, as of writing this article has 7,418 positive cases so far. It has a substantial exposure to Chinese tourists, for e.g, Bali hosted 1.2 million Chinese tourists in 2019. Health authorities in Indonesia decided against testing the 243 returning but asymptomatic citizens from Wuhan because of the cost of the test. Leaders in medicine and healthcare are rigorously working to find suitable methods for testing as many numbers of patients as they can.
Till then, alternative diagnostic and screening tests for COVID-19 will be extremely useful. At the present moment, China has large datasets of cases positive for COVID-19, more than 70,000 cases. They can prove as ideal datasets for deep learning and AI. These AI algorithms can then be used as an initial screening tool for suspected cases where a patient for example has travel history to China, Iran or South Korea, or exposure to confirmed cases, where those patients at higher risk could have confirmatory laboratory-based tests or be isolated.
In most of the cases identified, patients have mild cases of COVID-19. But physicians have to apply the same level of intensive methods to isolate, treat and monitor all patients. In order to save a significant amount of cost and time, AI algorithms can be developed to help physicians divide patients with COVID-19 into three potential groups:
- the 80% who have mild disease
- the 15% who have moderate disease
- the 5% who have severe disease and the ones at high risk of mortality.
Also, artificial intelligence can also help in the discovery of novel drugs with which to treat COVID-19.
Extenuation of COVID-19’s impact
Along with tackling the direct impact of COVID-19, it is also critically important in healthcare settings to maintain core and critical clinical service. One of the first reactions across the healthcare facilities for many countries is to reduce or curb many clinical services, including closure of clinics and postponement of medical appointments or elective surgeries. But, these types of strategies can not be sustained indefinitely if the COVID-19 pandemic extends beyond 6 months.
Across the globe, the healthcare systems will have to plan to use digital technology in order to achieve the desired milestones. For instance, one can set up ‘virtual clinics’ through the use of tele-medicine consultations with imaging data like chest X-ray and/or CT of the thorax, which are uploaded from peripheral sites and interpreted remotely.
Such a system in place will be able to make sure that patients keep on receiving standard clinical care all the while curbing physical crowding of patients into hospital premises, maintaining social distancing. Healthcare experts are exploring many options to eliminate physical meetings by planning to integrate virtual e-learning platforms.
On the other hand, the utilization of various AI-based priority systems can potentially alleviate the clinical load of physicians. One can integrate an online medical ‘chatbot’ that can potentially help patients recognize early symptoms, educate them on the overall importance of hand hygiene and refer people for medical treatment when symptoms seem to worsen.
On top of that, the phone-based software that detects and records patients’ data like daily temperature and symptoms, can help in preventing unnecessary hospital consultations for patients with mild flu-like symptoms. One can use these data in order to develop AI algorithms for the detection of COVID-19.
Hospitals in China are collaborating with blockchain companies and pharmacies to deliver patients’ medication to their doorsteps. By putting blockchain technology to use, hospitals can ensure timely delivery of medications with accurate tracking.
On one hand, the world is relying on classic public-health measures for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and on the other hand we have a wide range of digital technologies like facial recognition and to hire mobile app developers to build contact tracing apps specific to countries, which can be put to use in order to augment and enhance these public-health strategies.
The giant help coming in from tech giants
Tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are doing everything in their power to help businesses across the globe tackle this pandemic together.
Small businesses are the biggest beneficiaries of Big Tech’s economic relief, since they are one of the most affected entities in this global crisis. Along with this, healthcare research is also getting a major boost with funds that are more focused on advancing potential treatments and vaccines in the pipeline, and supporting healthcare workers in the trenches of the pandemic.
|Category||Company Breakdown||Total Amount|
|Small Business||Alphabet: $575M
|Media/ News||Facebook: $103M
|Relief Efforts||Amazon: $72M
|China-specific Relief||Apple: $7M
Source:- Visual Capitalist
Today, a huge amount of work and socializing has migrated online. Big Tech companies like them gain the most benefit from the current situation. These are their positive efforts to lend a helping hand may well be a strategy for uplifting their poor reputation in the media.
People might say that for these giant companies the cumulative of $1.25 billion is just a drop in the bucket. Not much to argue here. However, the fact worth noticing is that some Silicon Valley players, such as Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey who pledged $1 billion of his own equity towards relief efforts and education, are single-handedly matching these contributions.
Also, these financial efforts are not the only actions taken by the five companies in question. Many of these companies are in the process of building critical educational and data-driven technological solutions to help mitigate the COVID-19 situation as it unfolds.
Our goal is a long-term one. The immediate and spontaneous application of digital technology to tackle a major, global public-health challenge in 2020 will definitely boost the public and governmental acceptance of these novel technologies for other areas of healthcare, be it the inclusion of chronic disease in the future as well. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, and the world is in crisis where necessities are increasing with every passing day.