Feb 21 2020

5 Ways Healthcare Tech Is Helping Tackle Coronavirus

Collaboration tools and robotics are among the efforts to boost information sharing, patient care and public safety.

Healthcare technologies are aiding in the fight to curb the transmission of coronavirus. As of Thursday, the illness — officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization — has infected more than 75,000, with a global death toll exceeding 2,100.

Tools that already enable clinicians to streamline and expedite care delivery in a range of settings are helping some doctors more quickly diagnose (or rule out) coronavirus cases, provide virtual care and prevent the virus’s spread among populations.

Many tools have been developed and deployed where the outbreak has hit hardest, says Dr. Jennifer Bouey, a RAND senior policy researcher.

“China has already been leading some of the healthcare technology innovations because of the fast-growing demand of the healthcare sectors,” says Bouey, who also holds the Tang Chair in China Policy Studies at RAND.

By testing more people and sharing more information faster during an epidemic, officials are more likely to slow a contagious disease, regardless of its origin or severity, says Dr. Ray Costantini, co-founder and CEO of Bright.md, a virtual care platform.

“Years ago, it would take months to identify an epidemic; we’re now doing that in days because of tech and the ability to do data analytics,” Costantini says.

Here’s how several tools are helping the worldwide fight against coronavirus:

1. Videoconferencing Reduces Risk With Remote Care 

Earlier this month, Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, opened a coronavirus telemedicine program to physically isolate and treat Israeli patients, according to The Jerusalem Post. A telehealth-driven model could be expanded in the U.S. if coronavirus cases grow, one federal official told National Public Radio last week.

Meanwhile, many Chinese employees at home under government- or self-imposed quarantines are turning to remote work tools such as Zoom videoconferencing, CNBC reports. The platform “could be very helpful in quarantined areas, as it enables people to communicate and reduce the risk of exposure,” Bouey says.

A reactionary measure to install 5G networking and communications equipment at the West China Hospital of Sichuan University has allowed providers to conduct the first remote diagnosis of coronavirus with the help of a telehealth system. The initiative will be expanded to other hospitals, Business Insider reports.

READ MORE: Learn how collaboration tools help hospitals and clinics stay in touch.

2. Robots Lend a Helping Hand With Patient Care

In late January, physicians at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., used a robot to take an infected man’s vitals with a stethoscope and to communicate via a built-in screen. The remote-controlled telehealth cart allows physicians to perform basic diagnostic functions, such as taking blood pressure and temperature. 

“Technology is allowing us to reduce the number of up-close interactions” tied to coronavirus exposure, Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, the organization’s chief clinical officer, told Forbes.

Other use cases cited by Chinese news media include robotic food delivery and rubbish removal. And, robots designed to kill germs by emitting ultraviolet C light are sterilizing rooms at facilities with suspected cases of coronavirus, as well as the interiors of some airplanes traveling from China to Los Angeles International Airport.

3. Software Identifies Coronavirus Patterns in Health Records

Some healthcare IT vendors are updating their software to better identify patterns and potential signs of trouble.

In late January, electronic health record giant Epic updated its travel screening questionnaire in collaboration with biocontainment experts and infectious disease specialists, drawing on coronavirus guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The goal: to ensure clinicians and other frontline medical staff ask patients about recent international travel and relevant symptoms that could prompt isolation precautions, Healthcare IT News reports.

Both Athenahealth and Meditech have also released new guidance, testing orders and screening questions within their respective EHR software. “The technology and tools really help get information out to patients and providers more quickly,” Costantini says.

4. Chatbots Help Ease Patient Fears About Coronavirus

Several healthcare companies have updated their algorithms to create chatbots that help screen users for the virus before they visit a hospital or clinic. The idea is to help patients identify the symptoms earlier and reduce unnecessary visits. 

An on-demand primary care app called 98point6 released a coronavirus screening chatbot in January. Despite mixed results, designers have been continually updating the algorithm with symptom-specific changes, according to STAT.

AI-backed chatbots are also interacting with the public to answer questions about the disease. A WhatsApp nCov help desk chatbot by conversational AI firm Haptik is trained to answer questions about the virus and provide users with timely information.

READ MORE: Learn about 5 healthcare tech trends to watch in 2020.

5. Wearables Support Monitoring of Coronavirus Patients from Afar

Wearables can also help fight coronavirus by enabling healthcare professionals to monitor vitals with less contact.

Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center is using a continuous temperature sensor to help reduce the spread of coronavirus in China. The sensor is applied to the patient and sends real-time information and sensor readings to health professionals. 

The technology is being used by four other hospitals in China, and the Shanghai hospital has since announced it will also apply sensors to monitor heart and respiratory rates among this patient population.

nano/Getty Images