How the pandemic could spur lasting innovation

Greg Freiherr|2020-06-04
Greg Freiherr shares his opinion on what digital technologies in healthcare can do in times of the pandemic.
Greg Freiherr shares his opinion on what digital technologies in healthcare can do in times of the pandemic.

In early 2020, life in the Western world was deceptively easy. By mid-March, that had changed. In just days, what was sure became uncertain. Hundreds around the world – from infants to the elderly, people in good shape to those who struggled to walk upstairs – died. Tens of thousands lost their jobs. …And it got worse; a lot worse.

The virus continued ravaging the world, especially part of Europe, North America and the Middle East. In spring, about 4 million cases of coronavirus infection had been confirmed worldwide and more than a quarter million people had died, according to Johns Hopkins University [1]. Unemployment soared; economies stumbled. Fortune reported that not since the Great Depression -- nearly a century earlier -- had American unemployment reached such a level [2].

Physicians and politicians focused on a single invisible foe – the coronavirus, cause of the respiratory disease COVID-19.

Time and again, digitalization was called on for help. Responses – some novel, others available for years – helped keep people apart, while at the same time bringing them together. In schools, classes were replaced by online learning; social distancing led to virtual meetings; non-life-threatening injuries and diseases were handled through medical teleconferencing.

The virus had spurred a massive shift in the character of health care. Physician offices scheduled mostly urgent cases. One U.S. hospital – its ER flooded with COVID-19 patients – converted 40 surgical rooms to bed space.

Stay at home orders from governments led to fewer vehicles on roads; zero playtime for children at parks; and the end of spectator sports. People thought twice about routine but dangerous tasks like running chain saws or getting on motorcycles.

There were broken bones and sprains, of course. Patients still had heart attacks and strokes. Cancer patients needed diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Babies were conceived, checked prenatally, and born.

A lot of digital technologies in healthcare gained significance during the pandemic: Medical teleconferencing or remote scanning became important factors in digital crisis management.

But to diagnose and treat patients, digital technologies entered the spotlight like never before. Nurses held iPads filled with the teleconferenced faces of spouses and children barred from visiting relatives with COVID-19. From computer monitors, orthopods diagnosed hand injuries hundreds of miles away; dermatologists examined patients’ rashes and minor burns.

Through the analysis of complex data sets, artificially intelligent algorithms were pressed into service. In Abu Dhabi, the government health organization began using AI to model infection rates under different conditions. [3] The University of California San Diego reported that its radiologists were using AI algorithms to augment lung imaging analysis in clinical research. [4] And, in mid-May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appeared on the verge of permitting the use of AI algorithms to detect and prioritize incidental CT findings of COVID-19.

Whether the future will draw from the lessons learned during the coronavirus outbreak is not known. Will digital technologies – that had proven themselves effective in a crisis – be leveraged over the long haul?

The key could be proving that specific technologies improve efficiency and make the otherwise impossible, possible. One technology that uses remote data transfer and videoconferencing to make human knowledge available at sites meters or kilometers away may do both.

Before the pandemic, Swiss adopters had used this technology called remote scanning to make an advanced type of CT – cardiac CT – viable at a half dozen sites. During these scans, technologists still helped patients on-site; prepared them for scans; even conducted those scans. The advanced protocols, however, were plugged into the networked scanners by an expert in cardiac CT who did so from a remote master console. In short, protocols for the heart scans were transferred digitally to each site.

The idea was to move knowledge rather than people – not only to increase efficiency but to make advanced scans available throughout the network. Among the advantages was easier patient scheduling; increased flexibility, which made scans more convenient for patients; scanning with fewer professionals; and reduced patient set-up time. Remote scanning could even allow some technologists to work from home – an advantage that could be especially helpful in times of quarantines and social distancing such as the current one.

If necessity is the mother of invention, and crises underlie necessity, could something good come from the COVID-19 pandemic? Could the needs of this pandemic spur lasting innovation by uncovering the paradigm in which technology catalyzes efficiency, while providing other advantages to patients and providers?

If the coronavirus has taught us anything it is that being physically present is not always necessary. If digital technology can orchestrate a tele-presence that makes health care more efficient and convenient, does it not make sense to apply that technology under normal circumstances?

Returning to the old ways should not happen just because people crave a return to familiarity. What worked during the pandemic should become permanent fixtures of mainstream health care – if those solutions offer lasting advantages for providers and patients.

Greg Freiherr is a contributing editor to Imaging Technology News, or ITN. Over the past three decades, he has served as a business and technology editor for publications in medical imaging, as well as a consultant to industry, academia, and financial institutions.