Still without an effective vaccine or therapy to administer, the COVID-19 pandemic continues globally. Lacking tools to treat the population and create herd immunity to the virus, governments must rely on other methods of containment and mitigation. Just as the digital revolution has transformed most aspects of everyday life, so too does it provide tools for coordinating these efforts. The public health response has incorporated a large network of interconnected digital devices for everything, from data visualization to screening and contact tracing. Here are the top four technologies governments, healthcare organizations, and employers are using to guide their pandemic response, as well as some proposed solutions to increase safety as the pandemic continues.
- Artificial intelligence system proposed for rapid detection
Rapid detection is one of the most valuable assets technology can provide at this step, as it allows early treatment as well as vastly more successful containment and tracing. In a Nature Communications article published on October 9, researchers have outlined an AI system they developed and evaluated across a dataset of more than 10,000 CT volumes from COVID-19, influenza-A/B, non-viral community-acquired pneumonia, and non-pneumonia subjects. The deep-learning AI system directly takes CT data as input, then performs lung segmentation and COVID-19 diagnosis.
In a reader study performed involving five radiologists, the AI system outperformed all five in more challenging tasks at a speed two orders of magnitude above them. The code is open-source, available on GitHub, and could be the start of more efficient detection, especially for countries that routinely implement CT scans or chest x-rays as a first line investigation.
- Bluetooth contact tracing networks extend from smartphones to wearables
In an effort to expand the reach of Bluetooth exposure notification systems beyond smartphones, companies have begun to work together to define a standardized method to add wearables to the existing smartphone-based Exposure Notification System (ENS). Extending the ENS to encompass more devices could better address populations in which smartphone uses remains low.
All public ENSs have used Bluetooth technology already embedded in smartphones to notify users when they have been in contact with someone who is later diagnosed with COVID-19. This does not provide appropriate support to all population segments — notably, primary school-aged children and older adults living in care facilities. They are less likely to have constant access to smartphone technology — enhancing these networks matters, as contact tracing is exponentially more effective when it covers the entire population.
Other companies, such as Estimote, are marketing wearables directly to employers as a workplace safety measure. Not only do these small devices ping employees who move too close together, but it also works in concert with a contract tracing dashboard, allowing companies to quickly locate other exposed team members should someone test positive. All interactions are stored anonymously, and a list of effective employees is generated only when symptoms are reported, respecting employee privacy. The anonymized data also helps measure the overall effectiveness of social distancing behavior in the workplace, allowing real-time adjustment of workplace procedures and guidelines.
- Telehealth tools enable safer patient care and access to essential health services
Telemedicine platforms are not new, but the pandemic has changed and expanded how we use them and what they are capable of. There has been a boom in virtual applications that provide a review of patient medical histories, health education, health therapy management, drug use review, and more, all remotely. On the other hand, telecritical care enables remote monitoring of large patient populations, coordinating critical care management across online platforms.
And telemedicine robots are not just science fiction anymore either. Robotics has been a fixture in healthcare for decades, but new telehealth tools have really tapped into them as a resource. Bots originally designed to ferry supplies around the hospital or used as a surgical helping hand are being turned into walking, talking healthcare kiosks. These robots can take orders from and deliver items to patients, assist elderly or frail patients with movement, provide a video connection to a doctor, and act as patient monitors. Some companies, such as VGo and InTouch Health, have developed robots that can serve as a doctor’s stand-in in remote clinics.
- AI and big data facilitate transmission forecasting
ENSs also feed into migration maps, which use phones, mobile payment apps, and social media to collect real-time data on people. These maps, utilized in China’s response, allowed authorities to track the movement of people who had visited the Wuhan market. This data also fed into machine learning models developed to forecast regional transmission dynamics and guide border checks. This technique has rippled out into the data dashboards utilized in several regions. Of course, AI is not without limitations and requires training on COVID-19 datasets — most models to date are based on Chinese samples, which might not be generalizable.
This isn’t limited to personal devices. Everything from security cameras, bank card records, GPS data, and facial recognition technology can be used as data sources to form a comprehensive map of potential points of spread. After all, this is how South Korea was able to flatten the curve so quickly. In a report on Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic, AlgorithmWatch examines the use of technology in pandemic responses from a European perspective. As with any tech utilizing big data, the question of how technology and rights intersect is important to ask. However, in this case, countries such as Singapore and South Korea, who have utilized aggressive contract tracing techniques via all available technologies, maintain the lowest per-capita mortality rates in the world.
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