This article is part of our ongoing coverage of the fight against coronavirus.
In the relatively short time since doctors detected the first case, the coronavirus pandemic has put the healthcare sector under tremendous strain.
Departments deal with bed and ventilator shortages, testing delays and a lack of personal protective equipment. These issues emphasized some of the improvement opportunities for healthcare professionals to target while simultaneously showing how technology could fill the gaps.
Here are some of the compelling ways technology is helping the medical industry deal with these unprecedented circumstances.
1. It gives physicians new ways to monitor patients
Doctors know a wide variety of factors can influence a patient’s recovery after a hospital stay. For example, the person’s willingness or ability to carry out home-care instructions, as well as their access to help if questions arise, all make a difference in outcomes.
With many hospitals nearing their capacities as people in need keep coming through the doors, doctors must investigate new ways to oversee patients once they’re well enough to leave. Then, they can free up beds for the people who need them most without putting those in better condition at risk. Some available products track a person’s vital signs or allow doctors to listen to heart and lung sounds remotely.
More than 250 COVID-19 patients in Ireland received training with a monitoring app after their hospital discharges. The software measures aspects including oxygen saturation, breathlessness, and temperature, giving doctors clues about a potential deterioration.
Many hotels across the world were repurposed into facilities for people recovering from COVID-19. Whether a patient stays at one of them or goes to their home, apps can give doctors insights they would not otherwise have. The coronavirus pandemic alone did not trigger the increase in monitoring solutions. It has, however, illustrated that such technology could be instrumental in helping patients recover safely.
2. It offers new diagnostic options
One of the challenges associated with COVID-19 is that its common symptoms—a dry cough, fever, and breathing difficulties—frequently accompany other ailments, too. Thus, a person may not suspect they have the coronavirus until the signs become much more severe and potentially life-threatening. Another healthcare industry improvement exists in diagnostics. Healthcare workers need the confidence to quickly spot the signs of COVID-19 versus something else.
Some researchers applied tools initially used for other reasons to diagnose coronavirus patients. An example is the University of Sydney’s DetectED-X CovED is a cloud-based and complementary tool for early detection of COVID-19. The application, originally developed to find breast cancer, screens lung images to confirm the coronavirus in a patient even if a nucleic acid test comes back negative.
Similarly, more than 160 Chinese hospitals use an artificial intelligence-based tool to assess lung images for the types of pneumonia associated with COVID-19. That option reportedly makes diagnoses nearly 60 times faster than human detection methods alone achieve.
In another case, researchers trained a deep learning model to differentiate between COVID-19 and community-acquired pneumonia in chest CT scans. The fully trained algorithm processes new data in an average of 4.51 seconds, making it ideal for radiology departments under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.
3. It facilitates remote patient care
Most health experts instruct people with suspected coronavirus symptoms to call their providers instead of heading directly to their offices. The aim is to keep sick people from spreading the disease to staff members and fellow patients. Ongoing research suggests, however, that people can have COVID-19 and transmit it to others without experiencing symptoms.
Telemedicine could reveal some more improvement opportunities for healthcare professionals. For example, many people liked the idea of visiting the doctor from their homes before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. That option is especially appealing now, given that transmission can happen both via respiratory droplets and through coming in contact with contaminated surfaces.
Some individuals are now interested in using telemedicine for the first time. Thus, companies that provide such services should prioritize a fantastic user experience to increase the chances of individuals becoming repeat customers. Improving the methods to schedule an appointment and enhancing patient-provider communications following a visit are two prime starting points.
People wondering how much the coronavirus boosted telehealth visits can get an idea of the change thanks to a press release from Epic, a telemedicine provider. The company’s statistics indicate that as recently as March 6, virtual appointments comprised only 6 percent of visits at UC San Diego Health but now account for more than half. Moreover, NYU Langone Medical Center jumped from 20 to 1,300 telemedicine providers, and those people give up to 6,500 virtual visits daily.
Another recent development that could spur the popularity of telemedicine concerns the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announcing several changes to improve outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic. One is that CMS will pay for more than 80 additional services if administered to those with Medicare via telemedicine. Also, people can receive care over the phone through traditional conversations instead of through video chats.
4. It relieves the strain of bigger workloads
Analysts have long brought up the public health issues associated with an aging population. For example, healthcare costs go up because people live longer but often require extra care to manage chronic diseases. Plus, as the workforce gets older, skill shortages become more prominent. The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated these well-known challenges, but it also shows the path to healthcare industry improvement.
More specifically, robots could help the medical sector cope with the challenges of more patients and smaller workforces. Some analysts believe the coronavirus pandemic will encourage facilities to invest in robots to keep output levels high. An Italian hospital uses a robot named Tommy to measure oxygen saturation and blood pressure for critical-care patients. It also limits the patient-provider contact, which could keep COVID-19 from spreading.
A team at the University of Southern California wants to use robots for disinfection, too. One project involves an ultraviolet light wand mounted to a robotic arm. The gadget also has a larger light to address whole rooms. The subway system in Hong Kong gets cleaned with a robot spraying hydrogen peroxide, showing another worthy application.
Robotics companies are applying their knowledge to bring about urgent improvement opportunities for healthcare, too. For example, the founders of two such enterprises launched The Ventilator Project. It seeks to rapidly prototype a ventilator costing $1,000-$2,000 instead of the average price of $40,000. Success in that regard would directly address the global need for ventilators due to COVID-19, plus prove beneficial for other patients requiring breathing assistance.
Encouraging the continual use of technology
As COVID-19 causes public health disasters around the globe, it may also trigger positive effects.
When healthcare facilities and practitioners explore technologies to help them weather this current storm, many may ultimately realize that the tech assistance applies outside of the pandemic, too. Then, patients and providers both benefit from improved results.