Tech fights back! The latest weapons in virus containment.
Coronavirus is on the verge of becoming a pandemic, as there have been confirmed cases in every continent, except Antarctica. With the SARS crisis almost two decades ago, and Ebola epidemic in the not so distant past – how can we learn from these outbreaks to prevent the spread of Coronavirus?
The digital health sector has boomed in recent years, with varying technologies constantly being developed in response, and in anticipation of new and emerging viruses and diseases. We look at the ways in which the health tech sector responded to the Ebola outbreak seven years ago, and how digital health technology can pave the way in aiding the prevention of further infection across the globe.
Step one: Diagnosis
The first stage of any illness is the diagnosis. Currently, testing for coronavirus is an expensive and inefficient task. Coronavirus is diagnosed using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique that requires complex laboratory machines. Alongside the machines, a consumable test kit is required. However, as cases in China have reached almost 80,000, they have run out of the PCR testing kits, and have resorted to using CT scans, a highly expensive method of diagnosis to test for the virus quickly, before it is followed up by confirmation in the lab.
Technology developed during the Ebola outbreak to aid with the time and methods it took to diagnose people with the virus could help in the wake of the coronavirus. Researchers developed a portable diagnostic test which gave results in under 30 minutes from a simple blood sample without the need for expensive laboratories or technicians to operate complex machinery.
Singapore based company Veredus Laboratories are already working on a portable Lab-on-chip detection kit for the coronavirus, which hopes to make a quick, portable diagnosis. Moreover, other cheaper methods have also been used to aid in the diagnosis process, a group of youngsters in the Democratic Republic of Congo designed an app (named Lokole). The app ‘allows community workers to recognize the symptoms of Ebola by completing a questionnaire and then alerting a response team. The Ebola Response Coordination Team receives all alerts simultaneously and can use the Lokole application to transmit them to the field teams, if need be. A final report is sent to the Ministry of Health.’ The application not only aids in the speed of diagnoses, but it also helps with real time communication between the relevant health authorities, which is significant in the fight against highly infectious disease.
Step two: Monitoring outbreak
In an increasingly globalised world, the threat of a virus becoming pandemic is very real. Real time monitoring of outbreaks was used during the Ebola crisis, and is already live and running to track the spread of the Coronavirus. Monitoring the spread of epidemics has never been so easy thanks to digital technology. Digital maps can help ‘can identify health trends, predict medicine stockouts, or detect outbreaks far faster and more efficiently than any other systems’. GIS mapping for the Coronavirus has already been developed by researcher Lauren Gardner at Johns Hopkins University. The map collects data from the World Health Organisation, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and China’s CDC to give live accurate updates on reported cases and deaths.
Wearable tech has boomed in recent years. Alongside the ability to monitor your workout performance, wearables can also be used in the fight against disease. Many Fitbit style health trackers can help by monitoring peoples heart rates, blood pressure and blood oxygen levels. This is a quick and efficient way for health professionals to monitor patients symptoms remotely. However, the accuracy of health trackers is sometimes questionable. Additionally, concerns have been raised about the data security and privacy around such practices. What is clear is that whilst much of the potentially useful technology available can be used to aid us, there are a multitude of things to consider before doing so.
Step three: Care and Treatment
Starting with the basics of communication, during an epidemic it’s essential that everyone on the ground is kept up to date. With smartphones at our fingertips, SMS, social media and video call are the ideal means to send out mass updates and communicate with the affected. This is something that the NHS has made great use of these past few weeks with their SMS outreach and social media campaigns.
Whilst communication is in hand, technology can also work on experimental treatment. Following the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Atomwise used Artificial Intelligence to find and test drugs that would significantly reduce infectivity. Analysis that would usually take place over months was completed in less than a day.
The potential to use futuristic tech doesn’t stop there either. In the US, there’s been use of ‘medical robots’ to treat coronavirus already. As the virus spreads from human to human contact, it poses high risks to medical professionals. The robot allows communication of the patient and staff through a screen and is equipped with a stethoscope to minimise staff exposure.
Although there’s some great examples of ways we can utilise tech in the event of an epidemic. One key barrier to the timely implementation of these methods, is restriction of data. This is partly down to the siloed systems that hold data, making it impossible to make accurate forecasts and calculations, as well as the governance and policies regulating that data. The Epidemic response in West Africa in 2014 was severely hindered by the lack of flexible data policies in the event of an epidemic, and also the lack of technical foundations to make rapid data collection possible. This puts both a political and technological emphasis on the digitisation of health data that is required to optimise international responses to epidemics.
What about UX? Improving the clinician and patient experience.
Similar to the issues around data, the first UX hindrance for both medical professionals and patients in the event of an outbreak is the fact that systems do not talk. In an ever more connected world, information is disseminated instantly to millions of people. However, the means of communication between health professionals and patients is severely lacking, especially in crisis situations. The ability of clinicians to communicate effectively and efficiently with patients is paramount. Particularly in times of crisis, it is imperative that clinicians use an interface that is designed with the clinician in mind.
Doctors often spend hours wading through masses of information on a daily basis in an inefficient way, which leaves little time for patient care and interaction. An intuitive UI is key for clinicians to be able to use with ease.
Patient experience is crucial, particularly in a time of stress and concern. Yet patient experience is often something that is overlooked. However, it is important to remember that whilst technology and tools are great enablers, they should not be the centre focus. Ultimately we should be most concerned about the care that affected patients receive.
Nonetheless, UX is central in the patient experience of emerging technologies in healthcare. Designing systems with patient experience in mind can ensure users are able to monitor their condition whilst informing health professionals. However, whilst UX can improve patient experience it is important to note that the healthcare industry is heavily regulated and complex industry. Achieving the ultimate patient experience will not happen overnight.
Amidst the angst and fear of the virus, there are signs of major progression within the digital health sector. The power of technology in the diagnosis, tracking, and treatment of COVID-19 is crucial in fighting the inevitable pandemic. Whilst the race is on to develop technologies to help patients and clinicians, UX is in danger of being forgotten in these developments. Using UX principles, patients and clinicians should be at the forefront of these developing technologies in order to ensure information in shared and recorded in the most efficient and accurate way possible.
Special thanks to Alana Mothershaw and the rest of the UX Team for their assistance with this article.