Roundup: Tech’s role in tracking, testing, treating COVID-19

With the incidence of new COVID-19 cases growing by the day, healthcare stakeholders are continuing to search for tools and medications to help stem the tide. 

We have seen the digital health community release a slew of new tools aiming to monitor the spread of the disease and facilitate better treatment. And it sounds as if there’s still more to come, as just this morning CNBC reported that tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google were sitting down with the World Health Organization to talk about their role in combating the spread of disease, as well as misinformation. 

As of this morning there are 49,053 laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus, according to WHO. The medical community has rushed to search for solutions to the spread of the disease with a big push for vaccine and medicine research. 

Tech has a history of helping the medical industry track and treat viruses in the past. Among the more recent examples is flu tracking. In 2018 the US experienced a particularly severe flu season. During this time aggregated user data collected through Kinsa’s smart connected thermometers indicated illness spikes across the country.

Even more recently, a Scripps Research Translational Institute study published in The Lancet Digital Health found that resting heart rate and sleep duration data collected from Fitbit devices could help inform timely and accurate models of population-level influenza trends. 

In terms of COVID-19, we are seeing another rise in digital epidemiology tools, chatbot helpers, EHR guidance tools and rapid response test kits. 

Read on for a list of how health organizations, governments and digital health vendors are using technology to tackle the COVID-19 crisis: 

Checking for contamination. At the beginning of this week the Chinese government released a new app intended to help citizens check whether they came into contact with the virus.  App users are asked to register a phone number, name and ID number in order to see if they were in contact with someone infected, according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, which first reported the story. 

Users are able to get the app by scanning a QR code through platforms like WeChat, Alipay and QQ. The app will then give them information on whether they came into “close contact” with the disease, which the government defines as being in a close distance to someone who has a confirmed or suspected case with no protection.

Tracking the spread. A team from Johns Hopkin’s Center for System Science and Engineering released a new live dashboard that integrates information from WHO and the CDC to track the virus in real time. The dashboard includes information about cases by region and country, as well as the deaths. The information is displayed in a map and in corresponding charts. 

Screening and supporting. InterSystems released a functionality allowing users of the latest editions of TrakCare to screen and support patients with COVID-19, as the fight against the spread of the outbreak intensifies.

The company said customers in China, the UK, the United Arab Emirates and other countries had already started using it.

The functionality is based on guidance from WHO and links to the Wuhan Coronavirus Global Cases app from the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering in the US.

Partnering on solutions. Boston-based chatbot Buoy Health and digital epidemiology tool HealthMap have each been working on their own tools but have come together in a data sharing collaboration. 

HealthMap has been focused on tracking the novel coronavirus from the onset, and has experience tracking the spread of diseases. 

“There is all this information online and we can capture events ahead [of time using] what might be reported through these networks, social media, chat rooms … our work is focused initially on early signs of a disease,” John Brownstein, who heads up HealthMap, told MobiHealthNews. “That is what we did with the coronavirus and found some signs on local news, chat rooms. … We’ve been working with an international team to do some crowdsourcing of identification of key words and metadata.”

Meanwhile, Buoy has a new feature providing patients with information about the condition. When people are using Buoy’s symptom tracker, it may also be listed as a possible condition for certain patients — based on travel history and other factors. 

Buoy and HealthMap are sharing information coming into each platform to help assist patients at home as well as public health officials. 

“Because we have a good sense of underlying risk we can push that information to Buoy, and that can help them fine tune their algorithm and fine tune their decision support tools,” Brownstein said. “But the reverse is also true — they are collecting symptom data from consumers that can point to signals for disease contamination.”

Giving guidance. At the beginning of February, Phreesia, a digital health company that focuses on the patient check-in space, launched a new screening module for its clients at no additional costs. The new tool is based on the CDC’s guidelines and updates regularly based on these parameters. 

Drones for surveillance. Earlier this week Bloomberg News reported that the Chinese government is using drones to ensure that its citizens are following public health safety guidelines. The drones, which come with loudspeaker capabilities, will zero in on individuals who aren’t following the recommendations and an operator will give them instructions, such as, “go inside” or “put on a mask.”

 The videos, which were posted by Global Times, a publication owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, show the drones getting personal and calling out a person’s clothing or appearance in order to get their attention and then to correct their behavior. 

Curbing contamination. CNN reported that medical teams tapped robots to care for the first person diagnosed with the virus in the US. The robot was used to take vitals and communicate with the medical team outside of the isolation area. The CNN report specifies that the robot was used as a means of preventing the virus from being transmitted to the medical staff. 

Check the guidance. Earlier this week athenahealth added a new update to its cloud-based software aimed at helping its clients screen and test their patients for COVID-2019. 

As part of this effort, the company has implemented new diagnostic testing orders and screening questions across its network of ambulatory and hospital customers.

“We pushed these updates directly into the workflows of 130,000 providers overnight — no downloads or installation required, and sincerely hope that our ability to respond quickly and provide the right resources will help our customers in their efforts to limit the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus,” athenahealth CEO Bob Segert said in a statement.

Among the new tools quickly developed and deployed: a set of new travel-related screening questions that appear within athenaClinicals workflows.

Testing kit. In late January Singapore-based Veredus Laboratories, a provider of innovative molecular diagnostic solutions, recently announced the development of VereCoV detection kit, a portable Lab-on-Chip application capable of detecting the Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and COVID-2019 in a single test.

The VereCoV detection Kit is based on the VereChip technology, a Lab-on-Chip platform integrating two powerful molecular biological applications, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and microarray, that will be able to identify and differentiate MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and COVID-2019 with high specificity and sensitivity.

Under development. A group of researchers led by Assistant Professor Shao Huilin at the Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (iHealthtech) located at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is working on the development of a rapid Wuhan novel coronavirus detection kit, based on the enVision technology platform which they invented in 2018.

Traditional polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based coronavirus detection kits take about a day to produce results, while the latest lab-on-chip detection kit currently in development by Veredus Laboratories can produce results in about two hours. enVision (enzyme-assisted nanocomplexes for visual identification of nucleic acids) can be designed to detect a wide range of diseases — from emerging infectious diseases (e.g. Zika and Ebola) and high-prevalence infections (e.g. hepatitis, dengue and malaria) to various types of cancers and genetic diseases. enVision takes between 30 minutes to one hour to detect the presence of diseases. 

Curbing fake news. Facebook pledged to remove false claims and conspiracy theories about the disease posted on its social media platforms. 

In a recent blog post, the company announced that it is working with a network of third-party fact checkers to review information. If a piece of information is rated as false, the company pledges to limit its spread on Facebook and Instagram. 

Facebook also noted that it would be providing aggregated and anonymized mobility data and population density models to help researchers at Harvard and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan create their forecasting modes. 

Fever check. In the midst of the COVID-19 spread, Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), the national HIT agency in Singapore, has partnered with local healthcare AI startup KroniKare to pilot iThermo — an AI-powered temperature screening solution that screens and identifies those having or showing symptoms of fever. iThermo is currently being piloted at IHiS headquarters in Serangoon North and St. Andrews Community Hospital (SACH) from February 10 onwards respectively in “live” operational environments.

Reimbursement for tests. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced a new Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System code that will enable providers to bill the lab test for COVID-19. The code allows labs to bill for the specific test instead of using an unspecified code.

The system will be able to accept the code on April 1 for dates of service on or after February 4. HCPCS is a standardized coding system that Medicare and other health insurers use to submit claims for services provided to patients. 


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