Industry Voices—4 ways medical technology can help prevent the next pandemic, and even help fight this one

healthcare data analytics
Data analytics are already being used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and other agencies to track cases of COVID-19. (metamorworks/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 coronavirus infectious agent now exponentially spreading worldwide seems like a plague from a distant past.

In reality, pandemics have occurred regularly over the last 20 years (the SARS pandemic in 2002-03, the H5N1 bird flu epidemic in 2006-07, the H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009, the MERS virus in 2012-15), and, according to leading health experts, we can expect more in the near future.

The irony is that today’s technology might be facilitating the spreading of localized epidemics into worldwide pandemics. Ubiquitous, same-day transportation that carried carriers of the disease from one continent to another in a matter of hours made the rapid spread of COVID-19 inevitable. The first line of defense—containment—really never had a chance.

But what about the upside of modern-day technology in fighting COVID-19, notably modern-day health-related hardware and software? Where has medical technology been in fighting this plague?

As it turns out, the tools for fighting pandemics are right under our noses. The medical technology to help prevent the spread of future infectious agents, and even to fight the one in our midst, exists now. Each of the four technologies discussed below has all the essential capabilities to meet the enemy head-on and, if not vanquish it, seriously curtail its harm.

Big data

Big data analytics are already being used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and other agencies to track cases of COVID-19.

They use computer models with data mainly provided by Google to project its spread. Why Google? Because it gets relevant data about potential outbreaks before anyone else.

RELATED: Apple, Google team up on COVID-19 contact tracing via smartphone apps

Think about it. When a cluster of people begins searching for information about flu symptoms, that’s a real-time indicator that a particular zip code could be on the verge of an outbreak. This is the power of crowd-sourced data.

At the moment, however, these data have strictly been the purview of governments and institutions. What if we democratize the data and allow everyone to benefit from predictive analytics?

The silver lining in Google’s near worldwide monopoly of the internet search industry means that anyone with a laptop and wireless connection to the internet could create a Google search specific to their neighborhood, or even to their block.

Because of a lack of federal direction in the current pandemic, ordinary Americans are having to make their own decisions regarding best prevention practices, such as areas to avoid. What if we give them actual data to make informed decisions?

Teletherapeutics

With the advent of the pandemic, hospitals have shut doors to visitors. That makes perfect sense, given their need to protect not only those inside from outside pathogens but also to protect those who might enter. (After all, hospitals are essentially buildings filled with sick people in which air is circulated through the same system.)

But what if someone from the outside, say, a specialist, is required for an unusual patient case?

This is where teletherapeutics (aka telepresence, teleproctoring and telehealth) allows a person to be “present” without actually being there.

RELATED: Democrats voice privacy concerns about reported Kushner-led effort to collect health data

The specialist can engage remotely with the patient and other doctors in the patient’s own room by way of a monitor. The specialist—who might be literally thousands of miles away—can interpret bedside data. Specialized hardware and software ensure the patient’s EMR (electronic medical record) is protected at all times as well as provide the bandwidth necessary to move massive image files and big data sets required in medical diagnostics.

Smartphones

The term “smartphone” is the biggest misnomer since “life insurance.”

Your handheld device is a powerful miniature version of a mainframe computer that also happens to make and receive phone calls and text messages. It’s also a potentially powerful diagnostic tool.

Rather than wait for a hospital or clinic to determine whether you might be symptomatic of COVID-19, what if you could use your smartphone to self-diagnose and triage? Right now there are apps that can determine your body temperature, respiration rate and lung volume—all key biometrics used to diagnose the virus. If your readings indicated a probability of infection, these data could then alert you to the nearest facility available for treatment.

RELATED: Boston startup using AI, remote monitoring to fight coronavirus

Similarly, the same biometrics could be triangulated to help healthcare professionals triage a massive outbreak in a contained environment. (Can we say cruise ship?)

With self-diagnosed data sent to a central source, caregivers could be alerted to which patients needed immediate attention or isolation.

AI robots

In the movie “Contagion,” John Hawkes plays a custodian who cleans the hospital rooms where patients have been infected with a pandemic. While the doctors and nurses wear protective gear, his character goes about his business unprotected and unscathed.

That is pure Hollywood fiction. The danger for those tasked with cleaning facilities during a pandemic is extremely high and frighteningly real.

But what if humans didn’t have to be involved at all in this process? Robots are now being deployed to hospitals and clinics on the front lines of COVID-19 that use ultraviolet light to disinfect.

The advantage of UV light rather a liquid compound like bleach is that UV can zap not only hard surfaces but the air itself.

Drones are nothing more than robots that can fly. Imagine a fleet of 80 drones, working in perfect unison, to disinfect with UV light, an entire venue like a stadium. This technology is already being experimented with in Korea.

Joe S. Mullings is CEO of The Mullings Group, the world’s leading search firm in the medical technology industry. He is also the host of “True | Fiction,” a TV series spotlighting med-tech innovators around the world, currently available online.

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