The COVID-19 crisis is demonstrating the potential of digital health technology to manage some of our greatest public health challenges. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has issued a call to action for technology companies to help the science community answer high-priority scientific questions related to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also recognized that technology and surveillance systems can play an integral role in supporting the public health response to outbreaks.
The following are just a few examples of how technology has the potential to play an integral role in flattening the curve, limiting the spread of the virus, and assisting in the treatment of infected individuals. Perhaps the positive impact of these technologies will further accelerate the adoption and importance of digital innovation in healthcare. However, such innovation still needs to be balanced with the continuing need for safety.
Tracking the Coronavirus Pandemic
Digital health technology can help manage the pandemic by providing an early signal to potential infection. As widely reported, many public health authorities are limiting test eligibility to symptomatic patients and healthcare workers. Furthermore, there is a time delay between the onset of physical symptoms and, if the infected individual is able to get a diagnostic test, the receipt of results.
Kinsa Health, a company that uses internet-connected thermometers, has provided smart thermometers to people to record fevers at home. Users of the smart thermometer can then instantly report their fever and symptoms. Though the thermometers cannot confirm that a person has the coronavirus, the fever spikes captured by the thermometer are an early signal to potential infection.
Data from the Kinsa thermometer could help health authorities plan their allocation of resources. The instant reporting feature allows Kinsa to track the spread of fevers, and share the data through its online interactive maps that show where individuals are exhibiting symptoms by zip code. The clusters of fever spikes can signal to health authorities where to allocate medical resources and where to impose measures to further prevent the transmission of the virus.
Monitoring Hospital Visitors and Patients
Artificial intelligence has also been implemented in hospitals in the United States and abroad to help medical professionals screen visitors and treat infected patients. Hospitals with access to digital health technology can more effectively monitor and manage the coronavirus pandemic. For example, in Florida, Tampa General Hospital is using artificial intelligence developed by Care.ai, Inc. to screen hospital visitors with camera-embedded facial scanners that analyze facial attributes and thermal scans to determine whether a visitor is feverish. Similarly, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are developing FluSense, an artificial intelligence device intended to analyze cough sounds to assess the potential spread of viral respiratory diseases. Hospitals are deploying tools like these to help reduce the spread of the virus.
Remote monitoring, another form of artificial intelligence technology, can be implemented by medical facilities to protect staff and carefully monitor patients. In Israel, for example, Sheba Medical Center has been monitoring patients at remote hospital units in the hospital’s dormitories and underground parking garages. The sensor technology employed by Sheba, developed by EarlySense Ltd., is positioned under the patient’s mattress and analyzes the patient’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and body movement. Hospital staff can then monitor the patients remotely and be alerted to deteriorating health conditions as they occur. This technology not only reduces the medical professional’s exposure to the virus, but also benefits patients by improving the quality of health care.
3-D Printing of Equipment and Materials
3-D printing has been recognized for its potential in crisis remediation, and we are seeing this with COVID-19. The Chinese used 3-D printed houses for isolation of infected patients. Facebook has a group, OSCMS, dedicated to the design, validation and sourcing of fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies. Tips for using 3-D printing to create values and components for ventilators are being created by technologists and shared by healthcare professionals around the world via tools like Google Docs and WhatsApp. There are various stories of short-term use ventilators being produced using 3-D printing techniques.
More Examples in China
The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology recently released a full report on the use of big data, AI and smart applications by more than 100 Chinese companies in response to the pandemic. The report concludes that collection and accumulation of data, harmonizing data standards and sufficient data processing capabilities were all key to a more successful response. Specific examples of digital technologies that are promoted by the report for epidemic prevention and control include: (1) “big data monitoring and analysis platforms to analyze the trajectory of confirmed patients, track their contact history, identify the virus transmission route, and predict the development trend of the epidemic situation”; (2) “AI technologies, … online diagnosis, viral genome sequencing” and (3) “cloud computing, big data, AI … applications in epidemic detection, analysis, early warning, prevention and control.” Interestingly the report also talks about privacy and the importance of anonymization for data sharing even during a crisis.
Balancing Innovation and Safety
As we all struggle with the impacts of the crisis it is heartening to know that human ingenuity is a great source of solutions to our problems. Perhaps fears with respect to the impacts and risks of technology in healthcare may have been disproportionate when compared to the very real benefits that technology is exhibiting in helping to manage the pandemic and attempt to curb the spread of the virus. However, we have seen little discussion or coverage of whether these rapid innovations are taking into account regulatory guidance. We make no comment on the compliance of any of the solutions described in this post, but instead observe that safety and compliance do remain important considerations even when moving rapidly. As our colleagues posted yesterday, some simple steps can also help in managing litigation risk with these types of innovative technologies. We have also developed a Coronavirus/COVID-19 Checklist to assist companies that are deploying technology solutions to manage the spread of the virus.