Connected Healthcare at Work on the Front Lines

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Robots, telemedicine and IoT devices augmenting humanitarian efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Greg Kahn

For decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided statistical evidence of the impact of influenza around the world, stating that up to 646,000 people worldwide die from seasonal influenza-related respiratory illnesses each year—in non-pandemic conditions. With those staggering numbers coupled with the current COVID-19 crisis, we have never been more globally aware, with our best and brightest minds taking on the task to bring forth new and existing technologies to face the present danger and fortify us for the future. 

While it appears that the majority of countries must tackle COVID-19 primarily with traditional public healthcare strategies, there is a wide range of digital technology available that is or can be utilized in augmenting and enhancing these measures. With safety a top priority, promising applications and Internet of Things (IoT) devices are being utilized to assist with everything from medication dispensing to monitoring glucose levels to ensure those most vulnerable are protected and continue to adhere to their prescribed care regimen. 

Particularly with sheltering in place mandates, a range of wearable devices and apps are allowing diabetic patients to check their glucose levels with a simple scan rather than a finger prick. With continuous monitoring capabilities, they can track patterns and enable remote sharing of data with their healthcare providers. Several pill bottles are now internet-enabled and contain sensors that send data to the cloud regarding time of cap opening, closing and medication removed to avoid errors. Some devices use changing colors to indicate when medication is to be taken and when it has been dispensed and send reminders via text message, email or automated phone calls. Even blood pressure monitors and cuffs have improved, utilizing Bluetooth and connecting to an iOS or Android smartphone, tablet or smartwatch. Some keep digital records, with the option to email results to a doctor or clinic. Patients at home can also use devices that connect health professionals to their EMRs (electronic medical records) so that chronically ill patients can avoid visits to clinics and hospitals during the pandemic.

As global health prevention takes center stage simultaneously with critical care, testing and trying have become as important as emergency response. For example, University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers invented and are testing a portable surveillance device called FluSense, which can detect coughing as well as crowd size—in real time—then analyze the data to directly monitor flu-like illnesses and influenza trends. At Stanford, researchers are working to validate an AI tool that may have the capacity to help identify which COVID-19 patients may need ICU care. If it works, Stanford plans to use the tool to support decision making in its network of hospitals and clinics. 

Years before the coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Mark Stibich, an inventor, visiting scientist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), was concerned with the growing threat of antibiotic resistance and superbugs. Recognizing that nearly 300 people die in the U.S. every day from an infection they acquired in a healthcare facility—and that the death toll can be even higher internationally—he co-founded Xenex Disinfection Services, which  manufactures LightStrike™ Germ-Zapping Robots™. On a mission to save lives and reduce suffering by destroying the deadly microorganisms that cause healthcare associated infections (HAIs), the company’s LightStrike robots use pulsed xenon to create intense ultraviolet (UV) light that quickly destroys infectious germs. Today, Dr. Stibich’s robots are used in more than 400 healthcare facilities to disinfect rooms, with a reported 50 percent reduction in infection rates. With a shortage of surgical masks resulting from the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases, Baptist Health is among the first to expand its use of the robots to clean and preserve N95 masks, which help team members protect themselves and others from the spread of the virus.

Hospitals are also deploying a range of connected health systems technologies and programs to alleviate stress on healthcare providers and patients. Amwell has been equipping clinicians, patients and the industry that supports them with virtual care solutions spanning the healthcare continuum, from urgent to acute, since 2012. Supporting a range of telemedicine equipment that integrates with best-in-class software, Amwell is connecting patients to remote providers and enabling remote examinations. Its telemedicine carts, for example, support in- and out-patient care and are designed to manage high- and low-acuity cases. Equipped with a pan tilt zoom camera and Far-End-Camera Control and the ability to share images and real-time audio feeds, they enable specialists to examine patients remotely from anywhere at any time. Amwell also deploys kiosks for on-site clinics, retail health or pharmacy care, offering on-demand telehealth visits similar to a “walk in” clinic yet easier to access while remaining affordable. In these challenging times, these IoT solutions help reduce the strain felt by doctors and nurses on the front lines by making remote appointments possible and ensuring high-risk individuals are able to access healthcare without leaving home.

In the throes of the COVID-19 crisis, it is difficult for many to realize how far we have come. But, there is no doubt connected healthcare is on the front lines right alongside our nation’s most courageous and compassionate health professionals. At the least, it will lead to a new approach in identifying and controlling future pandemics. At best, it will spare thousands of lives in the coming weeks.

Greg Kahn is president and CEO of the Internet of Things Consortium (IoTC) and one of the most connected and engaged members of the Internet of Things (IoT) community. At the helm of IoTC NEXT: The Connected Future Summit, a first-of-its-kind industry event launched in 2019 in New York City, he is uniting foremost brand executives, leading technologists, investors and top media to address the challenges of a connected world.

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