One of the hottest topics recently has definitively been COVID-19. The disease has been discussed at length in all types of media. But, in the midst of all this chaos, we can count on technology to try to get through this situation in the best way possible. For this reason, I decided to write this article about which technologies in the healthcare field are helping us through this whole situation.
Different technologies are being used to fight COVID-19, from preventing the disease from spreading, through diagnosis of new cases and, last but not least, to the treatment of the disease and subsequent follow-ups, to avoid a possible return of symptoms. Thus, I will talk about some of the technologies that have contributed most in the pandemic scenario.
Internet Information Systems
One of the main ways disseminate information about the disease, raise population awareness and even carry out patient follow-ups are information systems via internet. An internet information system can be made through the use of internet browsers, in which web pages containing relevant information on the disease are developed and updated whenever necessary. These systems also provide access to databases for both searching and storing this information.
A web-based system was developed by Motorola for the Unicamp’s Teaching Hospital (Hospital das Clínicas da Unicamp). In this system, a web-based app, accessed through mobile devices, allows monitoring of cases of COVID-19 in which patients have already been treated and discharged. Thus, the hospital is able to check the progress of these patients and, in case the symptoms return, signal for their return to the hospital.
Another example is Missão Covid (Covid Mission), in which an online platform is used so that patients can evaluate their symptoms and, if necessary, receive care from a volunteer doctor through telehealth, a technology discussed in the following session.
Telehealth is a way to care for patients remotely. It uses technologies such as audio and video conferencing to enable communication with the patient, since the doctor can talk and see the patient at the same time, without the need for commuting or physical contact between them.
Before the pandemic, telehealth in Brazil was common only in psychological care or in cases in which the professional’s commute was not possible, such as providing healthcare to remote locations. However, with the arrival of COVID-19, telehealth care was expanded to other specialties in the healthcare field.
Currently, software such as Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom are the most used for telehealth in Brazil. However, in general, these pieces of software were not developed for this purpose and, therefore, don’t have solutions for integration with other systems that could contribute to the practice of healthcare professionals — such as cloud storage systems, in which the scheduling system and the electronic medical records of patients could be stored, accessed and updated by the physician during care. Thus, although it is already being implemented, telehealth still needs a lot of development, especially in solutions that integrate healthcare platforms with patient databases.
Today, telehealth is already growing. Last year, legislation devoted to this topic was created and now, with the arrival of COVID-19, its potential began to be effectively explored. As the legislation is still relatively recent, telehealth doesn’t have all of its technological potential implemented yet. However, it has already contributed a lot to the care of patients. Thus, telehealth begins to be considered as an alternative in healthcare, opening new paths for the application of technologies in the healthcare sector.
Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT (Internet of Things) is a technology that integrates electronic equipment, usually sensors or actuators (devices that perform actions, such as powering machines), so that they can converse with each other and make decisions based on the data collected.
In the healthcare field, now especially, with COVID-19, the Internet of Things is very present in patient monitoring. Sensors connected to patients collect data — such as heart rate, temperature and blood oxygenation — which, in turn, are gathered and stored on servers. Thus, healthcare professionals can access the data and monitor the patients without having to be present at the site.
IoT devices assist in the collection of data that improve remote medical consultations and allow better monitoring of these patients. In cases where the patient’s condition worsens, health professionals are notified and the necessary measures can be taken — such as the use of medications or the decision to hospitalize the patient.
Other IoT applications are used to monitor rooms in which patients are located, with sensors that monitor air quality and local temperature, for example. In the case of rooms with patients with COVID-19, it is also possible to limit the spread of the virus in the air with equipment that can clean or filter the air.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) — whose goal is to develop technologies capable of reproducing human reasoning and problem-solving capabilities — is the technology that has contributed most to assist in the COVID-19 pandemic. I will introduce some of the initiatives that have been contributing greatly to the prevention and detection of how the virus spreads, as well as to the treatment of infected patients.
Regarding the way in which the virus has been spreading, we’ve found several mathematical modeling initiatives that are trying to predict how the contagion curve, which factors define why in some places the proliferation of the virus was greater than in others. Some studies also seek to predict, based on data on how people move, what will be the most likely path of contamination of the virus. These models are mostly made through the use of AI algorithms.
An example of this use of AI is the Canadian company Bluedot, which has been working in the field for some time. Based on its algorithms, the company made an initial prediction, even before the disease left China (the first country to diagnose the disease), of the contamination path of COVID-19. Its AI model was based on the combination of their knowledge from SARS (also known as H1N1), information about the origin of the disease and about how people moved through airports near the regions that were initially affected.
AI has also been used to predict the possible emergence of new diseases based on information from similar cases. This allows authorities to be alerted earlier, so that measures can be taken before these new viruses can spread. With the large volume of data being collected in the pandemic, models that tell the characteristics of people and environments most conducive to the spread of the disease can be generated.
In order to detect COVID-19 cases, AI algorithms use data from patients who have already had the disease to infer whether a new patient may be contaminated or not. This helps alleviate the problems related to processing the large volume of tests that laboratories are dealing with right now.
Some studies already suggest that it would be possible to detect the disease through lungs and nasal sinuses X-ray image analysis algorithms, because these algorithms can find signs of infection in the images, which indicate whether the patient has the disease.
An example an AI algorithm for this purpose was developed by USP (Universidade de São Paulo or São Paulo University) in partnership with Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo. In this algorithm, information such as age, gender, amount of hemoglobin, platelets and red blood cells are used to identify patients contaminated with COVID-19.
When the topic is the treatment of COVID-19, many people have been giving different guesses about the medications and procedures can be done to the fight of the disease, however, none of these guesses are based on concrete information. AI algorithms can cross-reference the information collected — such as data on patients already cured, the drugs and procedures that were used on them and the particularities of each individual — and verify which of the drugs and procedures presented the best results during treatment.
In this article, I sought to introduce the main technologies that are being used in the prevention and treatment of the problems caused by COVID-19 and that will be an inheritance to medicine as a whole. Of all the technologies I have mentioned, I believe that the most promising of all is AI, since it has the potential to predict, detect and even find a solution to the problem.
Other technologies may still emerge in the course of the pandemic. We hope to extract as much as possible from current technologies so that we can create new tools that help not only in the current moment of fighting the pandemic, but with future diseases.
For now, as we still have no conclusive analysis of how this virus can be combated, the best way to contain it is to follow the guidelines that are being widely disseminated by the media: practice social distancing, had washing and the use of masks when going out on the streets.