The Coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we know it. With social distancing measures and the lockdown being put in place to contain the virus, we have seen a rapid transition to digital. Businesses have moved to tech-enabled work from home models overnight, while schools and colleges have turned to educational technologies to support distance learning, and more. As the demand for healthcare and medical professionals increases, the industry is moving quickly to adopt disruptive technologies that can help fight this global crisis.
While the use of technology in healthcare has seen prominence in the last few years, we are likely to see it take bigger strides during and post COVID-19. Here are a few areas where we expect to see traction.
Tracking and disbursing information via mobile apps
The Government of India is already leveraging technology to track the growing number of COVID-19 cases in India, collect data and pass on relevant information to citizens via the Aarogya Setu app. The app alerts people if they have unknowingly come across a COVID-19 infected individual. It also has a tool for self-testing that people can use to check for COVID-19 symptoms themselves. Additionally, it gives necessary information on how one can self-isolate, where the closest hospital is, and the next steps to follow if they do develop symptoms of COVID-19.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The Aarogya Setu app has seen 50+ million downloads in just ten days following its launch, indicating that it is a widely accepted tool. Going forward, we will probably see more of such dedicated mobile apps being built for healthcare tracking and public health information dissemination.
Spreading health awareness with local language websites
Studies across the globe have indicated that people absorb health information better if it is relevant, localised and aligned with their cultural and social environment. With 22 recognised languages in India and people across social groups, this is a great insight. Health communication will likely become more localised in the near future.
Whether it is spreading awareness on hygiene issues, health crisis prevention or guiding those affected, messaging via the internet will be in local languages, dialects and scripts to be effective. To reach India’s sizeable non-English speaking population and a target audience of more than a billion, we expect to see large scale adoption of local language domain names supported by local language Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs). As we prepare for life beyond the lockdown, demand and consumption of local language content through health and wellness websites will likely only grow stronger.
Reaching rural India with telemedicine
In India, we have been hearing about telemedicine for a fairly long time, and several hospitals, health professionals and even startups have tried to make it a reality.
Now, with access to one of the most affordable mobile broadband services globally available to Indians thanks to disruptive players like Jio, and unfortunate black swan events like COVID-19, India is ready for a paradigm shift in healthcare delivery with telemedicine being the catalyst.
Even though India has already reached WHO norm of 1:1000 doctor–population ratio, it is still widely disproportionate. The majority of the doctors practice in bigger cities and towns, while rural communities have limited access to doctors and no access to specialists at all. This divide can be bridged using telemedicine, i.e. the use of technology to connect the best doctors with patients living in the remotest corners of the country. Building telemedicine clinics is key to this. Such a clinic, manned by a nurse, is equipped with a laptop/smartphone and an internet connection to provide patients a video consultation with leading doctors. Doctors can then see their patients, diagnose the ailment and provide the course of treatment.
Using AI to help combat COVID-19
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has reshaped many major industries such as banking, e-commerce, and more. It has the potential to transform healthcare too. It can help mine patient data and analyse it, ensure early detection, find patterns, facilitate correct diagnosis, design the right treatment, conduct research, help create drugs and molecules faster, help make quicker decisions -- all life-saving applications when it comes to healthcare, especially in today’s times of Coronavirus.
There have been instances in the past where biotechnology companies have used deep learning to harness data points to see if existing drugs could be redesigned to treat the Ebola virus and found some success. Maybe the same technology can help with treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine for Coronavirus.
India has worked hard to slow the spread of COVID-19 so far and treating those affected. However, the 2019 Global Health Security Index that measures countries’ pandemic preparedness based on their ability to prevent, detect, mitigate and cure diseases, ranks India at 57 out of 195 countries, demonstrating that there is scope for improvement. Proactively adopting new-age technologies will help India reach its potential.
As with every industry, the digitisation of the healthcare sector is inevitable. The sooner we embrace disruptive technologies, the better it will be for patients and medical professionals alike. Health technologies will be pivotal to ensuring inclusive healthcare, providing faster and effective treatments, finding the cure to elusive diseases, improving the quality of life and putting India on the world map.
The author is Regional Director, Neustar.