Digital innovators have joined the fight against COVID-19

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Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

The COVID-19 pandemic has pressed the fast-forward button on digital health innovations that would otherwise have taken years to produce. It turns out that time pressure is a great incubator of efficient, original thinking.

There are hundreds of digital health solutions for COVID-19 response. They can be broadly divided into four thematic areas: surveillance, treatment, diagnosis and prevention. Let’s look at some of the most innovative solutions:

A British company by the name of DrDoctor has developed a surveillance system that sends broadcast messages via SMS to up to 10,000 patients with information about their care. Patients can either be added to the list or automatically enrolled if they meet certain COVID-19 symptom criteria. Broadcast messages can reach thousands of patients quickly and easily.

Meanwhile, a company named BroadReach is helping facilities to manage COVID-19 patients by sending out facility readiness surveys to facility managers via an app. This allows management to decide where to send critical COVID-19 supplies. Time is of the essence when it comes to providing frontline health workers with critical personal protective equipment.

To speed diagnosis, the Armed Forces Medical Command, Republic of Korea, has developed CheckUp – an automated risk assessment app which checks the patient’s symptoms and epidemiological factors. CheckUp can be used by anyone. It’s a self-reporting tool for public assessment of all risk factors related to coronavirus infection.

When fear and misinformation reign, a reliable app providing crucial information for confused patients can be extremely valuable. CheckUp is also a triage app which provides information for medical staff, building on Korean guidelines for frontline triage. When decisions have to be made fast and resources are limited, advice on who should receive priority treatment is precious.

For clinicians there is also CovED, from the company DetectED-X, to self-learn and recognize COVID-19 by rapidly and accurately diagnosing the early signs of the disease in Computed Tomography scans. Germany’s Helmholtz Center for Infection Research teamed with the country’s largest public health institute, the Robert Koch Institute, to design an IT system used to help control the Ebola outbreak in 2014. It’s called SORMAS (Surveillance, Outbreak, Response Management and Analysis System), and it runs a mobile phone app which forwards information about infected people and their contacts to the health authorities.

The system helps detect individual cases of COVID-19 at an early stage, and contact traces outbreak clusters even in remote regions and countries with weak infrastructure. It documents clinical details and laboratory confirmations and offers guidance on therapy at an early stage if patients fall ill. At the same time, it generates data in real time for ongoing risk assessment and targeted interventions at national and international levels.

What innovative digital technologies are being used to fight COVID-19?

Lastly, the DHIS2 COVID-19 surveillance tracker, a new digital data package by the Health Information Systems Program, at the University of Oslo, offers an innovative and practical solution. It accelerates case detection, and automates situation reporting, active surveillance, and response. The digital data packages are optimized for Android data collection with the DHIS2 capture app and can be downloaded on the Google Play store. Four available data packages involve clinical examination/lab testing/outcome, port of entry screening/community follow-up, contact tracing and outbreak line listing.

Platforms have been established to help health experts and laypersons find these innovative solutions. The inventory of digital health solutions for COVID-19 comprises about 150 different solutions, graphically placed in a table. The Global Coronavirus Innovation Map, launched by StartupBlink and the Health Innovation Exchange by UNAIDS, visualizes the global database in fields such as diagnostics, treatment, and lifestyle changes, on a geographical scale.

In a similar vein, the World Health Organization has established the COVID-19 Initiative within the Digital Health Atlas. It helps to coordinate and scale effective digital health implementations and should serve as a hub of information about software planned and deployed in response to the global pandemic.

While COVID-19 has helped to speed health innovation, it has also highlighted the need to consider digital health as a public good. At its center is the health data that is used for digital health systems and generated by and extracted from the systems. These shared assets are important for all stakeholders, be they patients or care providers, to fully benefit from digital health. If they are not in place, the sustainability, quality, reliability, efficiency and effectiveness of digital health and patient safety can be jeopardized.

How data has been used to manage the pandemic has shown that there is a grey area between what is good for the individual and what is good for population health in terms of data ownership, privacy and security. Principles are needed to enable the governance and regulation of digital health public goods.

We have an opportunity to build these shared assets and provide guidance how to build sustainable digital health solutions. The best-case scenario is where decision makers in low- and middle-income countries can create shared assets (infrastructure, governance, standards, policies to clarify data rights) to identify and provide critical information.

Partnerships between academia, governments, industry, international organizations and the non-profit sector are crucial to develop digital health solutions. Ideally, the data is presented in a usable format to patients, health care providers, policymakers and entrepreneurs, and is owned by patients.

Once this crisis is over, these solutions will be used in everyday situations, embedded in solid digital health systems producing and using high quality and reliable data governed by effective privacy and security policies. Hopefully, that day is not too far away.

This article was originally posted on the Asian Development Bank Blog.

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Martina Merten

Global Health Specialist

Susann Roth

Principal Knowledge Sharing and Services Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department

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