• Victor Mbatau

Necessity is the mother of invention - Managing COVID-19 in the digital era

As we continue in the fight against COVID-19, innovations in digital health are on the rise as never experienced before, and their adoption is also increasing at a high rate. As much as these technologies play a key role in this pandemic, how are they accessible by healthcare providers and how can they be used in practice?


From a global perspective, we’ve summarized three technologies with the most impact across different fields in the health sector from diagnosis through to information provision.


3D Printing

The pandemic has put a strain on economies and supply chains such that healthcare institutions worldwide are facing shortages in medical equipment and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), owing to the high number of daily COVID-19 cases diagnosed. This shortage is putting frontline healthcare providers and patients at risk as governments and medical professionals call out for manufacturers to step up their supply.


To meet this demand, the Additive Manufacturing sector has answered the call and are producing equipment from ventilator parts to protective gear to help treat patients. In the US, DSM has launched an open marketplace, united4covid, designed to provide solutions for medical professionals caring and treating COVID-19 patients. In Italy, the FabLab startup is producing 3D printed valves connecting respirators to oxygen masks. Formlabs is printing nasopharyngeal swabs required to collect samples to test COVID-19 and Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) adapters among other products. In Kenya, Ultra Red Technologies is producing face shields and other 3D printed products that are currently being tested and pending approval before mass production. The list goes on and on and its almost impossible to keep up with the number of initiatives coming up.


Telemedicine

Telehealth is playing an important role in the management of COVID-19 by replacing a proportion of face-to-face clinical encounters to improve the efficiency of health service delivery. With hospitals loaded with critical cases, avoiding unnecessary visits is a must to reduce putting yourself and others at further risk through remote screening and ensuring safe access to health services. This also allows physicians to focus on the most urgent cases requiring prompt medical attention.


In Kenya, the first national telemedicine center for COVID-19 detection was opened on 22nd March 2020 at the country’s largest referral hospital, Kenya National Hospital, to improve access to better healthcare for the rural poor and marginalized communities. The center is linked to the Machakos Level 5 Hospital located in the eastern region. Many hospitals have also adopted the use of telehealth by providing access to virtual clinics for patients where consultations are done. Dial Daktari, SASAdoctor among others are also playing a key role in this fight by making health services available.


The pandemic has given telemedicine the much-needed boost and we may see it getting more and more adopted even after the pandemic subsides.


Smartphone Tracking

In the effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, conventional tracing methods to identify those with the virus and to limit transmission are not enough. Measures for monitoring and controlling the spread have to be in place thus the importance of contact tracing technologies.


By tracking smartphone users, health authorities are able to identify the movement of infected persons, and subsequently, know who they have been in close proximity or in contact with. Tech firms in Kenya have come up with technologies to support contact tracing efforts by the Ministry of Health. Using the Linda Application, Kenyans are able to know if they are within the vicinity of a person who has tested positive through the use of Bluetooth technology. KoviTrace provides access to all the persons that a patient has come into contact with within the past 14 days. For those without a smartphone, KoviTrace can be accessed using a USSD code.


In other countries such as Singapore, the government rolled out an app called TraceTogether that uses Bluetooth technology to monitor the movement of those infected and to know who they have been in close contact with. In Hongkong, the authorities are monitoring those in quarantine using a wristband that links to a smartphone app that sends the realtime location of the quarantined person. Tech giants like Apple and Google have also formed a partnership to include contact tracing in their operating system. These methods are somewhat intrusive but thankfully there are ways to preserve privacy while allowing contact tracing.



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