In the current context of COVID-19, one of the greatest challenges is how to manage a contagious disease which in some cases requires heavy medical intervention while respecting social distancing as much as possible. Today, digital technology is emerging as part of the solution. Alcimed explores the panorama of digital tools for health that allow for better management of the COVID-19 epidemic today.
How will the Covid-19 crisis help build a new place for digital health?
Digital for science, research and development
In the fight against the coronavirus, digital technology provides tools to better understand the spread of the virus and accelerate the research and development of treatments, therapies, vaccines, tests and other medical devices.
The use of digital technology for epidemiological studies using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms is a prime example, as evidenced by the activity of the Canadian company BlueDot, which began cross-referencing global data on air traffic, animal disease outbreaks and global news bulletins in order to prevent epidemics as early as 2008. By collecting and analyzing data globally, they were able to study the spread and evolution of the coronavirus and thus identify the first pandemic signals a week before the WHO. At the same time, the availability of data via NextStrain allows researchers around the world to monitor the disease in real time. Other tools, such as the one at Johns Hopkins University, gather information on cases of infection, deaths and the geographical progression of the virus, and allow everyone to be informed in real time. Digital technology is therefore a tool that makes it possible to study and anticipate the spread of the virus, monitor the evolution of cases and communicate this information almost instantaneously.
Digital technology for health is also used to support the research and development of therapies, vaccines and diagnostic tools. Although it does not as such allow the invention of new molecules or the precise prediction of the effect of a drug against Covid-19, it can however identify all past or current research and the state of progress of this research, allowing researchers to focus their research on real needs. This is what Insilico Medicines offers, for example. Other platforms such as CORD-19 make available a database of 45,000 scientific articles on COVID-19 which, among other things, are intended to trigger new ideas for development.
Finally, digital technology supports the production of medical equipment thanks to 3D printing. Many hospitals use it to overcome the shortage of certain tools (probes, swabs,…) and to produce new objects specially developed in the context of the coronavirus. One example is the Decathlon diving mask adapters to turn them into respirators. Among the hospitals that have invested heavily in 3D, Paris hospitals are a good example: they have equipped themselves with a fleet of 60 3D printers to cope with COVID-19. Thanks to these printers, they can, for example, print adaptation valves for these Decathlon diving masks to turn them into respirators. The 3D printer makes it possible to go from prototyping to line production in 48 hours, as opposed to several months in a traditional industrial process.
Digital technology for patient management
Digital technology has also proved to be a valuable ally in patient care, especially in times of confinement, where direct contact between people, and therefore also between doctors and patients, had to be minimized. Telemedicine has been existing for a long time and has even been legally regulated and promoted on a large scale since September 2018, but its use has exploded since the beginning of confinement in France. The one million teleconsultations per week was exceeded in April, whereas only 10,000 teleconsultations per week were counted at the beginning of March, just before confinement. The American company 98point6 went even further by offering virtual consultations using an AI capable of redirecting patients to a doctor if necessary.
Some digital tools were used to assist in the diagnosis of COVID-19 and the follow-up of patients diagnosed as positive. For example, the startup Biofourmis has developed a platform in Hong Kong that collects more than 2 million digital data per day and per patient. In the event of suspected infection, a virus detection test is sent directly to the patient. Robots, such as the UVD Robots from Denmark or the Chinese robotic solutions CloudMinds Technology, have also helped patients in quarantine by measuring their vital signs and helping them to manage their medication intake and disinfect their living space.
Digital technology for health communication
Finally, digital was used as a prevention and information tool. Although the Internet provides access to a lot of useful information, the circulation of false information has also led to a dangerous situation of “infodemia”. Tools have thus been put in place to monitor the quality of information accessible to all, particularly on social networks, such as the COVID-19 Infodemics Observatory. Numerous institutional sites have also been set up to transmit reliable information on COVID-19. Digital technology also makes it possible to speed up the delivery of large-scale training for healthcare professionals. For example, the World Health Organization has put online training courses on the clinical management of the virus.
At a time when direct contact between humans is severely limited and discouraged, digital tools have therefore made it possible to circulate information rapidly, to make sources available worldwide to research institutes or the general public, and to manage patients in a more practical way. They have made it possible to continue to advance science and to circumvent the dangers of direct interaction between people by offering virtual solutions. The question now is what will remain of the use of digital tools for health once the COVID-19 crisis is over.
For more information on the development of digital health, download our position paper on Digital Health in times of pandemics.
About the authors
Amélie, Consultant in Alcimed’s Life Sciences team in France
Benjamin, Great Explorer Digital Health in Alcimed’s Healthcare team in France
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