Last updated: 20 April 2020
In the past, we have looked at the ways in which technology is changing the healthcare sector, however, at a time like this, with a global pandemic affecting millions of people, never has technology been so vital at trying to ease the strain on our hardworking frontline responders.
So how exactly is it helping?
3D printed equipment
The equipment needed to handle this pandemic is essential to anyone who works or is being treated in a hospital. Unfortunately, due to the rapid spread of this virus many countries have struggled with shortages of such apparatus as demand has surged.
This is where 3D printing has been able to help. In Italy for example, a 3D-printer company has designed and printed 100 life-saving respirator valves in 24 hours for a hospital that had run out of them. The valve connects patients in intensive care to breathing machines.
And in the UK, a scarcity of personal protective equipment, has been partly filled by 1,400 3D-printer owners, who have pledged to use their machines to help make face shields for the National Health Service (NHS). It is hoped that these measures will help protect healthcare workers and prevent them from having to put themselves at risk when treating patients.
Perhaps most impressively, a team in Spain has rapidly designed an emergency-use ventilator out of 3D-printed parts. The team has also already stated that the blueprints for these ventilators will be open source, meaning anyone in any country with a 3D printer will be able to make them.
This drive towards helping countries in need with new realms of technology is a great testament to the value we place on healthcare staff across the world and may fundamentally change how equipment is made in the future.
Robots reducing human contact and killing harmful microbes
There are numerous ways we have seen robotics help during the pandemic. In principle using robots is a great way to avoid workers having to come into unnecessary contact with people and places that may be infected. In addition, robots can be used to relieve exhausted health-care workers.
In China, where the virus first began, robots were deployed to deliver meals to travellers in isolation at a hotel in Hangzhou, as well as to deliver medical supplies. The robots – which have a cabinet built into it for carrying food – trundled through the hotel’s 16 floors to look after its occupants quarantined in their rooms, helping to prevent the spread of the disease by reducing human-to-human contact.
In terms of disinfection, Denmark-based company UVD Robots has created a self-driving machine that can kill pathogens and superbugs with a zap of ultraviolet light. The concentrated UV-C light emitted by the robots as they drive has a germicidal effect that removes virtually all airborne viruses and bacteria on the surfaces of a room.
The invention has been designed to increase the safety of both staff, patients and their relatives by reducing the risk of contact with bacteria, viruses and other harmful microorganisms. Their ultimate goal is to reduce the instances of hospital acquired infections, thus freeing up beds and increasing functionality of the hospital.
The company is also seeing interest not only from hospitals but prisons, hotels and airports, where large crowds may conjugate, which may also alleviate pressure on health workers by stopping people becoming sick in the first place.
IoT devices to monitor vital signs
Tracking how many people may have the virus has been one of the great challenges faced by many countries, which is why many have gone into lockdown. At present, we are reliant on testing and hospital reports. As a result, many scientists have said coronavirus maps are likely showing movement weeks behind reality.
However, as reported by the New York Times, Kinsa, a company that produces smart thermometers, says it has been able to track COVID-19 in something close to real-time. If a user feels unwell, they take their temperature and the thermometer connects to a mobile application via Bluetooth to give general guidance on a user’s current temperature and whether or not they are showing signs of fever or illness.
With a rise in body temperature being one of the key early symptoms of COVID-19, collecting anonymised temperature data that can be separated based on location, may be able to assist in tracking and potentially containing the number of cases. Saving the further spread of the virus and aiding the health service by allowing decision makers to place more localised areas under lockdown. Clusters of sudden fever cases, organised by ZIP/Post code, will also indicate where they should focus their testing efforts.
Finally, as many patients with chronic conditions now find themselves confined to their homes, IoT devices are helping doctors to track the vital signs of these patients for afar. This protects those most vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 from having to make physical journeys into hospital, minimising their risk of catching the virus. Medisanté CEO and Thales partner, Gilles Lunzenfichter, explains how this works in the video below:
Using AI to map where resources are needed
Understanding where resources and medical staff are most in need has become difficult in this crisis, and much has already been done to try and avoid the inefficiencies this creates for hotspots. We have already seen the impact this has had in France, with Reuters reporting that 38 patients were transferred by high-speed train from the Paris area to less overwhelmed regions to ease pressure on the capital’s intensive-care capacity.
To try and reduce the instances where this happens in the UK the government recently announced it was partnering with Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Palantir and Faculty AI to use AI and to map where critical resources should be sent.
Here, data collected via the NHS’s 111 telephone service is to be mixed with other sources to help predict where ventilators, hospital beds, and medical staff will be most in need and optimise the numbers based on where they are most in demand.
Not only will data help divert patients to the facilities that are best able to care for them based on demand, medical supplies and bed capacity, but this will help make the best decisions for the workers looking after patients.
We want to say a massive thank you to all our fantastic health workers across the world at this difficult time. Your incredible efforts are greatly appreciated by everyone.
Please stay safe and follow government guidance about staying at home to flatten the curve.