COVID-19: Unprecedented Catalyst of Digital Health

globe overlaid with holographic healthcare symbols depticting the impact of COVID-19

We published a blog post in February highlighting technology trends from CES 2020 which we believe would impact the world of digital health. Those trends were:

  • Surge of the sensors
  • Voice-enabled everything
  • AI-augmented everything
  • Data at the speed of 5G

We predicted these trends would have a significant impact on healthcare by:

  • AI-powered healthcare tasks
  • Personalization of care
  • Voice-enabled patient experiences
  • Consumerization of healthcare

Since our blog post in February, a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) quickly became the COVID-19 disease pandemic, overwhelming countries and healthcare systems in ways we’ve never seen. With this in mind, we decided to look again at the trends we outlined in February to see how COVID-19 affected our healthcare predictions.

The last pandemic was in 1918. Between then and now, the worlds of health, technology, and industry have changed significantly. We understand health and medicine better now. We have technological tools that enable sophisticated vaccine research, drug development, and treatment. Yet a global health crisis such as this has challenged us on a scale that’s being described in terms of warfare. In a sense, the comparison is apt given how innovation during World War II helped end the war faster. The shutdown of countries and economic sectors in response to COVID-19 has brought our reliance on technology to the fore. Whether it’s broadband Internet connectivity, video-conferencing tools, or digital grocery shopping experiences, technology has made a difference in how we live, work, cope, and thrive in a quarantined world. More important, technology has been instrumental in facilitating our collective response to the pandemic from a public health perspective. In this blog post, we’ll look at the role the projected digital health trends are playing in the fight against COVID-19.

Technology Trends Supporting the Global Healthcare Ecosystem

AI-powered Healthcare Tasks for Medical Researchers

Researchers use artificial intelligence to fight COVID-19

We had identified that the most obvious way AI is proliferating in healthcare is by augmenting arduous human processes. In the rapidly evolving situation around the pandemic, AI is playing a supporting and crucial role. Medical researchers are harnessing AI techniques to understand protein structures of viruses, and to trawl through volumes of medical literature.

Google DeepMind’s AI-driven system, AlphaFold, has applied machine learning techniques to structural biology to predict the 3D structure of proteins based on their genetic sequence. Predictions for SARS-CoV-2 have been made available to the scientific community to aid in accelerated development of vaccines and drug therapies.

Given the amount of medical literature that abounds for any disease state, the last 4 months have produced a huge volume of research on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. AI start-up BenevolentAI has been able to scour through such scientific literature to surface possible treatments. Thanks to their AI platform, a drug originally designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis called baricitinib is going into clinical trials with the National Institutes of Health as a possible treatment for COVID-19.


Voice-enabled Experiences at the Core of Contactless Human Interaction

Amazon Alexa serves COVID-19 guidance from local government sources

With more than half the world’s population under stay-at-home orders at some point during this pandemic, families and individuals have been using their home devices more than ever. What we have found is that voice and video are enabling virtual experiences for patients, healthcare professionals, and caregivers. That includes voice tech devices to get more information about their health, consume news, communicate, and be entertained. Patient support, which may have traditionally been dependent on a live HCP visit, is now enabled to be fully virtual through voice and video.

Major players in this space, such as Amazon Alexa, have scaled up to provide localized information around COVID-19 based on guidance from local government sources. Certain city administrations, like the one in Bangalore, India, use Alexa to answer questions on what services are and aren’t available during lockdown. Given the sensitivity around contact surfaces in public places, we can expect that contactless interactions with technology, vis-à-vis combination of voice and screen experiences, will find increased adoption inside and outside the home, and importantly, within the context of a smart speaker and other devices.

There are specific-use cases in healthcare where voice is playing a crucial role. Vocalis Health, an Israeli voice tech start-up, has a tool that tracks vocal biomarkers to identify respiratory illnesses. They are now partnering with healthcare groups to develop a diagnostic test for COVID-19 based on the sound of the user’s voice. Similarly, use of AI-powered voice assistants, such as Suki or Saykara, can already enable HCPs touch-free information access and record-keeping thus limiting the disease spread through interaction with surfaces in clinical settings. France launched AlloCovid, a telephonic voice assistant, to guide callers through a series of questions to identify if they may have been exposed to the virus, and offer helpful information. This AI-powered hotline is aimed at helping senior citizens that might be less likely to use a smart device.

5G Was a Laggard

COVID-19 caused supply chain delays for 5G expansion

The good news to us techies is that the sophistication of sensors, artificial intelligence, and voice technology continue to mature at high speed. The continued and increased use of these technologies as foundational components within digital health platforms continue to feed the rapid evolution of these platforms through data and agile technology advancements. Interestingly, 5G was a laggard. The plans to expand the 5G infrastructure were in many cases limited significantly by lack of physical access and supply chain delays. We expect this to be a short-term impact, as the need for 5G will be even more important to enable home connectivity and digital health for the masses.

Technology Trends and the Impact to Healthcare

Personalization of Care Through Dramatic Telemedicine Adoption

Telehealth visits increased 1500% during COVID-19 pandemic

In the wake of the pandemic, IQVIA reported a 1500% increase in telehealth claims versus the pre-COVID-19 baseline, and a 72% reduction in live HCP visits (source: IQVIA Global Executive Briefing 2020). Globally, adoption of telemedicine for both physical and mental health has increased, where more than 50% of patients are new users, according to a McKinsey survey. With social distancing measures to contain the spread of infections, telemedicine has become the preferred strategy for physician visits to ensure safety of both the healthcare providers and the patients. As part of the government’s response to the unfolding situation, the US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHSS) awarded a total of $35 million to increase telehealth capabilities, access and infrastructure (source: USDHSS). The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) eased restrictions on Medicare by covering a wider range of services including the use of FaceTime and Skype for video consultations (source: Office for Civil Rights, DHSS).

In light of these developments, we expect telehealth services to be the norm beyond this crisis, and be re-tooled as a personalized, on-demand service that connects intelligently with your wearables and home health tech such as glucometers, blood pressure cuffs, and smart scales. Each of us could become our own primary care physician, given the opportunity to procure services through Teledoc, DoctorsOnDemand, DrFirst, and Kareo, to name a few.

Consumerization of Healthcare Further Solidified Through Technology Adoption

Consumers are exploring digital solutions for healthcare, including doctor consultations and exercise

Even as consumer behavior worldwide is trending toward caution, meaning consumers are pulling back on discretionary spending, the upsurge in use of telemedicine suggests that patients are getting
comfortable using technology to consult with their doctors from the safety of their home. The role of digital therapeutics and wearable devices is proving to be crucial in how much value is derived from a virtual visit. Data indicates that, confined to home, consumers have resorted to finding digital solutions for how they work, shop, exercise, and seek healthcare.

Leading up to this crisis, Rock Health reports that Q1 2020 was the second largest investment quarter for digital health in terms of total funding since 2017. At the end of the quarter, it is expected that any unspent investment will be focused on technologies that offer solutions to this public health challenge. Given the momentum of innovation we reported on prior to the pandemic, we are likely to see artificial intelligence, sophisticated wearables, and digital therapeutics play a greater role in how healthcare is delivered.

New Technology Trends Emerge During COVID-19 Crisis

New technology trends limit human interactions and increase productivity during COVID-19 pandemic

Some emerging technologies that didn’t make our list earlier caught our attention because they’re finding new uses in healthcare on the frontlines of COVID-19 by minimizing human interaction. The renewed interest can be attributed to the fact that they reduce human-to-human contact and improve productivity while social distancing.

Robots and Drones

Robots are being used to assist with patient care to check temperature and dispense medications thereby minimizing healthcare workers’ exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus given the shortage in personal protective equipment. CVS Health is piloting the use of drones to deliver prescription medicines to a retirement community in Florida. Boston Dynamics Spot robot is partnering with hospitals to perform televisits for COVID-19 patients. Singapore is now piloting the use of Spot to patrol parks and encourage social distancing among citizens.

Computer Vision and Thermal Imaging

Some governments and organizations, particularly in China, are using thermal imaging and computer vision to identify and isolate people who may be exhibiting symptoms of infection. With privacy concerns with the use of these technologies, their adoption in other parts of the world might be limited.

Contact Tracing Apps

Technology consulting companies such as Credera are developing data-first mobile apps for large biotech campus settings to enable the quick and safe return of thousands of employees to office buildings. The iOS tracing app will track contact (within 12 feet) so that individuals who test positive can anonymously alert co-workers who may be at risk. The app provides a reporting feature to allow health and safety teams to quickly follow up with people the infected individual encountered. Anonymized, user-controlled data supporting GDPR, HIPAA, and other privacy regulations are essential protections within the app.

Conclusion

We are seeing evidence that innovation in digital health is underway at a faster pace than ever before. As the situation with the pandemic evolves, new candidate vaccines and drugs are going into clinical trials faster than ever, scientists are discovering new facets to this virus, governments are looking for ever more effective ways to contain the spread, and healthcare workers on the frontline are looking for safe and effective means to care for the infected. All of this is aided by purposeful innovation in technology and we believe the trends we saw at CES 2020 are very much in this mix. While it is premature to predict specifically, we recognize that our world will be altered in the aftermath of this pandemic and we have reason to believe that what we devise and build in this time will contribute to a smarter and nimbler healthcare ecosystem.

New technologies and disruptive innovations were already enabling the consumerization of health and personalized medicine. COVID-19 social distancing has accelerated the adoption of telehealth and virtual HCP and patient engagements in an unprecedented manner. Patient-first communications have transformed to virtual-first communications.
Seismic impacts to promotional marketing, medical education and communications, and medical evidence and regulatory guidelines are to be expected. At Omnicom Health Group Technology, we continue to advance our understanding of the digital and data tools that will enable us to drive the telehealth revolution and accelerate positive health outcomes through modern communication solutions.

Looking for more information on these trends, or digital and data-first healthcare communication strategies in a post-COVID-19 world? Please contact us at technology@omnicomhealthgroup.com.



Sources and Further Reading






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