, , ,

Connected Medicine In the Age of Pandemics

Marconi Society COVID-19 Coronavirus Blog Series

By Arogyaswami Paulraj

The COVID-19 pandemic will be a major social and economic disruption, but certainly not on the scale of World War I or II. While the broader impact of current pandemic should abate in two to three years, we should use this crisis to better prepare for the future.

In areas of Information and Communications Technology, the COVID-19 crisis can have deeper and more lasting impact. Clearly, telecommunications-enabled services will see increased demand and investments. We certainly need more functionality and better quality online interactions for family / personal connections, business meetings, classrooms, medicine, conferences, voting, entertainment, shopping and the like. I am sure that private industry will respond to these markets. Much of this will be for the good, but I do worry about what an increasingly online society will do to the fabric of humankind, which depends so deeply on person connection. Additionally, large segments of our economy, like manufacturing, construction and healthcare cannot function online, at least until the age of robots – which is still far away.

The current global response to COVID-19 would not have been possible without telecommunications. But we need more innovation in telecommunications to build the necessary medical infrastructure to deal with pandemics.

The possibility of zoonotic infections has been around for millennia, but modern mass transportation and high-density living make them much more pandemic capable. Therefore, society will need tools to better prepare for future pandemics that can arrive more frequently and be even more deadly than COVID-19. We not only need better early warning tools, but also technology to track infection incidence during its advancing and retreating phases. The latter will be crucial to better inform decision making to bring a society back to normal functioning safely and quickly. Possible ideas include:

  • Internet of Health Things– we need scale population data to help detect and measure pandemic incidence. One example is Kinsa, a smart thermometer that uploads patient temperature to a cloud data base. This has already been used in Florida to detect possible COVID-19 hot spots. In China, smart phone apps have been used to upload body temperature. Many more such tools can be developed, including at-home antibody testing or, in the future, even nucleic acid testing. This will dramatically improve pandemic management.
  • Tracing Individual Infection Potential arising from either contact with an infected person or perhaps even with infected surface.  While rudimentary tools are already available, we can build far better tools with more specificity and geographical – temporal sensitivity.
  • Surge management for hospitals. Severe shortages of hospital resources are a huge problem in pandemics and online data driven management systems for matching patients, supplies or even medical care workers to hospitals best equipped handle surges can be vital. All this will need high speed and reliable wireless connectivity.
  • Tele-screening.A lot of resources (Personal Protective Equipment and health care worker time) go into testing and screening to identify patients needing hospital care versus those that can recover at home. Good telemedicine-based screening tools can reduce this burden significantly. And infected but low risk patients who recover at home can upload data on vitals for follow up monitoring.

These are just a few examples. As with the Internet and wireless, we imagined only a tiny fraction of the eventual uses of the technology when we created it.  Welcome to the Age of Pandemics.