Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Can medicine make technological leap during pandemic?

The novel coronavirus pandemic that swept the world in 2020 has posed several major challenges to society.

1. The first challenge was to organize effective lockdown and social distancing measures as well as to control compliance, which also included economic support, information and public awareness (such as briefing people on medicines and tests, reasonable ways to seek help, and so on).

The situation is similar to the Middle Ages when plague and smallpox raged in Europe: even then, people realized that the disease was contagious and staying away from each other was a strategy that increased survival chances for entire populations. However, this means physical isolation, not informational. Modern technologies enable connectivity even when physical contact should be avoided.

2. It is essential to develop vaccines, medicines and new diagnostic methods, primarily rapid tests, best of all widely available for independent use like pregnancy tests.

Anyone who feels certain symptoms, as well as their immediate environment, should be able to quickly find out whether “it’s just a common cold” or not.

3. Practical medicine should be enhanced to help the infected people, including:

• diagnosing;

• treatment of mild cases (more than 80% according to the current statistics); and

• treatment of severe cases and trying to avoid deaths (the COVID-19 death toll is currently estimated at 3.5%–4%).

All these tasks are time-sensitive and require urgent solutions which are being sought by society in the absence of similar past experience. In other words, nothing like this has ever happened to us before. Could the technology that already exists and is applied to business and life become the tools to multiply the speed of analysis, decision-making and support for the public in the extreme circumstances? Let’s try to address each of these three problem areas with the capabilities of the new-generation IT that could be part of our healthcare arsenal.

1. Ensuring that quarantine is observed is a task for authorities not medical workers.

However, epidemiologists need data on quarantine observation, violation and results. To obtain this data, healthcare professionals and the Emergencies Ministry must be able to monitor the number of mobile devices, the number of vehicles on roads and, most importantly, the intensity of the traffic on the map, in real time. Solving this task is rather realistic considering the capabilities of mobile network operators and the GLONASS system.

2. Searching for new drugs and vaccines is a task for the pharmaceutical industry and science – again, not medical workers.  

Even here, modern technology – specifically, computational and experimental biology – allows sharing this task between numerous pharmaceutical companies and scientific organizations to expedite the process. It would be possible if there was a global pool of competent participants who trust each other. There are some uncoordinated participants in the world already – who, unfortunately, do not enjoy the same trust or a single and coordinated code of conduct in the current situation, or rules of entry, exit and success sharing.

However, it does not mean that this is impossible. It is an important task for reputable organizations and individuals who have influence and respect with the scientific and medical communities.

3. And, finally, the treatment of patients, the medical personnel’s area of responsibility.

There has already been a proposal to make it legal for doctors to provide a preliminary diagnosis by remote consultations. This is definitely not the perfect solution and maybe not a solution at all, but it is a very vivid example of how the current technologies can contribute to the traditional medicine. Many high-tech solutions can be found in a brainstorming session (gathering a list of ideas, even the crazy ones, and then picking the best). For instance:

  • Fitness trackers with thermometers: for everyone;
  • Home quarantine trackers: for the automated calculation of the quarantine index and remaining isolation time or increasing the priority for diagnostic procedures;
  • Self-registration, automated data recording and collection in separate quarantine circles, targeted assistance, providing quarantined people with quotas for emergency diagnostics – all of this can be easily automated and analyzed;
  • Systems to support clinical decision-making. These systems are already working: they analyze data and provide recommendations to doctors regarding diagnoses and treatment options for comorbid patients (for instance, with oncology, rheumatic disorders, diabetes or severe endocrine disorders). These systems can be promptly adjusted to provide help to doctors amidst the pandemic, who still have little information, with the same facts and ideas interpreted vastly differently – including their official interpretations. For patients, such decision support systems will help answer the question asked by an increasing number of people as to what can be done in their specific condition. The answers will differ depending on the current interpretation and the situation.

Doctors and researchers at leading medical institutions and universities have already joined forces to launch the project HealthMap, an online system for visualizing the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. The project creators used open data sources, with the map being automatically updated. Meanwhile, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, Yandex, and Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs have teamed up in Russia to create an alliance to battle the pandemic.

This is an instance where assistance for millions of people in different regions of the country and the world can arrive through high-tech solutions. IT tools will allow us to promptly gather facts, analyze information and give recommendations, something that human brain cannot do on its own, given the daily update of input data and increasing volumes of information.

There is a chance that following the pandemic we will have entirely different and renewed medicine, which will have to take a leap in technology.   

By Mikhail Kaufman, Project Director at TechLAB IT company

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