In December 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) commemorated the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication. Ironically, later that month the world was introduced to a new epidemic caused by the Novel Coronavirus. At the same time, the WHO’s fight against other epidemics such as the Ebola virus outbreaks in Congo is far from over. As the world becomes smaller in terms of access, the risks associated with a disease outbreak becomes greater.
Every disease outbreak puts our healthcare system in disarray. Not only does it affect the country where it originated, but it also has a far-reaching impact on healthcare systems in other countries. As of today, the coronavirus has reportedly spread beyond China to 16 countries. A visit to a public healthcare facility in Singapore in the last few days shows how the healthcare system is tracking everyone who visits a hospital or a polyclinic – not just patients. Clinicians are also conducting extra screenings. This has ramifications for healthcare systems, that are already strapped with staff shortage.
There are obvious economic ramifications – at least in the short term. Several companies are banning travel to China for their employees, while many manufacturing units in China have had to temporarily shut down. The impact is not restricted to China alone and has the potential to impact global trade and economy.
Every new disease that comes into the limelight also impacts the life sciences industry that has to divert their R&D resources into finding a cure and/or a vaccine for the disease. While winning the race for the first breakthrough can be a huge opportunity for the pharmaceutical company, it also impacts the regular research being conducted to protect us from other deadly diseases.
Unfortunately, we are always one step behind diseases, and we have to first think of cure and containment before we can consider prevention and eradication. As we wait and watch to see how fast the coronavirus epidemic is contained, we must acknowledge the role technology plays in managing epidemics and other disasters. Here are some initiatives:
One of the success stories to emerge from this disaster is the speed at which the risk of the outbreak was detected. 10 days before the WHO announcement, BlueDot, a healthcare monitoring platform had already detected the epidemic, from intelligence gathered from news reports, disease networks and official sources. The same platform – and a few others – are also predicting the global spread of the virus by mining global airlines ticketing data. This is a reassuring outcome of how technology and human analysis can effectively come together to improve health outcomes.
While the current global concern is the speed of containment of the disease, eventually there will have to be more proactive measures to prevent another outbreak and to even eradicate the disease. To be able to understand the full nature of the pathogen and to come up with a vaccine, it is important that the virus is isolated. Scientists from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne successfully grew the Wuhan coronavirus from a patient sample. While the Chinese authorities had released the genome sequence to help with the diagnosis, this ‘game-changer’ can be potentially used to detect the virus in patients who do not yet display the symptoms and eventually to develop a vaccine. Cutting-edge research in healthcare has always been conducted by such research and pharmaceutical organisations. They have consistently pushed the adoption of new technology in healthcare, especially in their R&D practices.
As mentioned earlier, any outbreak taxes the front-line healthcare providers the most. They have very little time to change their triage and protocols to combat a disease that they have possibly never encountered. This is where clinical decision support systems that can incorporate these new protocols into the workflow comes in handy. Epic, the EHR provider has pushed a software update that does just that. According to Epic, this update was developed in collaboration with biocontainment experts, infectious disease physicians and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCs). Collaborations such as this will be required if we have to devise a global protocol for epidemic management and containment.
There have been several other initiatives during this outbreak that show how different technologies can come together to benefit healthcare, especially to handle a crisis. Technology has always played a huge role in spreading the message in times of disaster, especially in emerging economies – with technologies such as AI, the potential of technology benefitting healthcare increases exponentially.