The highly infectious COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly spreading across the world, causing untold misery. Lives and livelihoods have been lost and the global economy stands shattered. The world, affected by the pandemic, is experiencing a crisis such as one never witnessed in our lifetimes. While no specific medicine or vaccine is still available, desperate attempts are being made by healthcare givers to leverage technology to help them in their fight against the pandemic. Their challenges are many; they have to adopt a healthcare system that efficiently uses the limited resources they have at their command, quickly find the medicines to save millions of patients, and find a vaccine so that they can prevent the spread of the disease, and, at the same time, protect themselves from getting infected. Technology is emerging as their main ally in this struggle.
Patient and hospital-centric healthcare system is resource-intensive, both in terms of human resources and infrastructure facilities. In a COVID-19-like situation, it is necessary to adopt a system which efficiently uses all the resources. This is all the more relevant with regard to the Indian healthcare delivery system which, even otherwise, is awfully inadequate and often unaffordable to the vast majority. Technology offers viable and affordable alternatives.
The global medical fraternity is veering round to using remotely managed healthcare delivery systems, especially in cases involving patients with mild illness and no risk factors. Last month, the World Health Organisation issued an interim guidance
“Home care for patients with COVID-19 presenting with mild symptoms and management of their contacts” that says, patients “with mild illness and no risk factors may need to be isolated in non-traditional facilities, such as repurposed hotels…or managed at home.” Others, such as the Centre for Medicare & Medicaid Services of the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India, have also issued similar guidelines. In their article, which is based on their experiences, Dr Mirco Nacoti and his colleagues of Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in the province of Bergamo, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, have also recommended home care approach and outreach services for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms.
Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) systems are helping clinicians gather patients’ physiological information remotely so as to treat them. Outreach healthcare services also ward off the possibility of hospitals facilitating virus transmission to other uninfected patients as their ambulances and personnel rapidly become carriers of the virus.
Many, including domestic companies such as Bharat Electronics and Electronics Corporation of India Limited, have started making RPMs that are based on Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Some of them even offer smartphone connectivity. Healthcare providers are using RPMs. Technology is thus leveraged not only to make efficient use of human and other resources, but also for ensuring the safety of patients and clinicians as they limit the possibility of the spread of the infection.
Artificial Intelligence is helping in drug discovery, better understanding of the disease itself and how it spreads, to effectively screen large populations and identify sick people, and in such other tasks. Massive efforts are underway to quickly discover a drug or a combination of drugs to save lives from COVID-19. The process involves massive amounts of data relating to numerous molecules to be analysed. Academic researchers and pharmaceutical companies are using artificial intelligence and other associated technologies, such as machine learning and simulation, to rapidly hone in on the most promising molecules for further experimental testing that is required to move from a promising target to a cure.
It is almost impossible to conceive of finding a cure within the next 12-18 months without the use of artificial intelligence and related technologies. A Chinese technology company has built AI-based solutions to effectively screen large populations and detect a change in their body temperature so as to identify sick people and quarantine them before they infect others. Autonomous vehicles are being used in moving patients to and from healthcare facilities without risking the lives of healthy people. The humble infrared thermometer-guns are extensively used at checkpoints in public places, such as airports, hotels, hospitals, train stations, shops, etc., to measure the body temperature from a distance so as to identify individuals who might need further investigation.
Many countries have introduced contact tracing mobile applications (India’s Aarogya Setu, for instance). These applications are expected to help health authorities and workers to quickly contact people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or create an alert when an infected individual leaves an isolation facility.
Robots are being used to take health data and send the same to medical teams outside isolation areas so as to prevent the virus from spreading to the caregivers. A Mumbai-based healthcare firm has deployed its diagnostic software that automates the interpretation of COVID-19 proliferation from chest X-rays, helping healthcare professionals to monitor the extent and rate of viral infection progression.
Technology is playing an important role in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the midst of all the gloom and doom, it is giving us hope and offers solutions to lessen the pandemic’s impact. Its role in drug and vaccine discovery, X-ray and ECG interpretation, patient health data monitoring, patient tracking, containment of the spread of the disease, decision-making support and such others are bound to increase as the pandemic spreads.
(Arcot is an industry analyst and automation consultant; Brig (retd) Kasthuri is a consultant physician and teacher)