Beyond contact tracing: How new e-health tools are being deployed to fight COVID-19

When most people think of pandemic-related technologies, their minds turn to contact tracing applications powered by AI algorithms that many governments, including China, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom, have recently deployed. These mobile apps are designed to support national policies aimed at containing the virus and to encourage the uptake of preventative measures by monitoring quarantine compliance and to track infections.

But what other innovative ICT solutions are being used to combat COVID-19 – and could these serve to mitigate or even prevent future pandemics? This idea was debated in the latest ITU-D Study Group 2 public webinar on New e-health solutions to fight pandemics with ICT, addressing Question 2/2: Telecommunications/ICTs for e-Health.

“While contact tracing is a big intervention area where we see governments engaged in facilitating deployment of innovative apps, some for the first time, e-health solutions can be used in many different ways, from preventative measures to compliance monitoring,” said Hani Eskandar, ITU’s Senior Coordinator of Digital Services, who moderated the discussion.

Indeed, “a diverse set of novel e-health solutions are being piloted at all stages of the COVID-19 pandemic,” affirmed Mario Romao, Global Director for Digital Health Policy, Intel Corporation, who presented examples ranging from detection to prevention to response and recovery (see Figure below). Before the pandemic, he added, the very first “digital smoke signals” from Wuhan were detected by the AI of Canadian startup BlueDot in the final days of 2019.

Multiple pandemic intervention points

E-health refers to the use of ICTs to support health needs, while telemedicine is considered the part of e-health where telecommunication systems allow the interconnection of remote locations to enable remote access to distant medical resources and expertise. In pandemics, telemedicine is an often-overlooked response that is essential at every stage, from prevention through to recovery. While e-health tools have enabled mental healthcare workers to be among the first responders, virtual solutions must remain available well before and long after initial outbreaks. “In a pandemic, mental health issues affect not only frontline workers, healthcare professionals and patients, but also the general population,” said Malina Jordanova, Associate Professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She highlighted the importance of prevention by supporting healthy citizens who are under added pressure, since it is easier and more cost-effective to cope with a mild case of anxiety than to treat depression for years.

Tackling the prevention side in a pandemic is not a new tactic, said Isao Nakajima, Professor at Seisa University. The concept of Targeted Antiviral Prophylaxis or TAP traces its origins back to 18th century Japan, where preventative medicine would be distributed nationwide under a “value first, money later” business model, he said.

Built on the old, augmented by the new

Other experts showed how many innovative digital health solutions are not entirely novel but rather hybrids of older and emerging ICT. Most applications are also related to healthcare, as Turhan Muluk, Telecom Policy Director at Intel Corporation, pointed out. In China, for example, the largest share of sectoral distribution of 5G applications is medical care, he said. Mr. Muluk also highlighted how older technologies such as WiFi and newer ones such as 5G are complimentary and can form useful symbiotic relationships.

A real-life example was shared by Hirokazu Tashiro, Senior Expert at NTT Data Corporation, whose recent proof-of-concept combines existing medical technology like radiology with AI and machine learning. Initial testing of the model in an Indian COVID-designated hospital revealed that the AI matched human radiologists’ performance in detecting the presence of COVID-19 from chest x-rays. The results of the initial testing show that medical image AI has the potential to be used as an effective triage support when PCR testing systems are not in place, said Mr. Tashiro. PCR or polymerase chain reaction is a chemical reaction that identifies bits of DNA to diagnose an infection and is currently the standard test for detecting SARS CoV-2.

Another example was shared by Teppei Sakano, CEO and Founder of Allm Inc., whose stroke detection app evolved into a cross-border telemedicine platform powered by doctor-to-doctor networks. In addition to patient monitoring capabilities, Mr. Sakano explained how Allm applications can integrate with other technologies, such as those performing AI diagnosis using simple x-ray images. Radiologists at teleradiology centers in Japan, Brazil, and the United States can now offer faster and more affordable image diagnosis remotely, within hours, and at a cost of mere cents per image, he said.

Diverse e-health solutions require robust data governance

The expert panellists showcased a variety of e-health solutions that can be powerful tools against a pandemic – but most are only as good as the training data that feeds them. Robust data governance mechanisms are therefore key globally, not only for individual privacy protection, but to make cross-border health data sharing possible to power more tools like those shared by Mr. Sakano.

ITU Members can help by raising awareness about e-health solutions among healthcare professionals, donors, decision-makers, and customers, answering questions such as: What virtual tools are available and where? How to deploy them and what is the cost? These are the main stoppers for implementing many e-health services, said Professor Jordanova.

Chairman of ITU-D Study Group 2 Ahmad Sharafat emphasized the increasingly vital role of ICT in mitigating and responding to pandemics like COVID-19. The New e-health solutions to fight pandemics with ICT webinar showed there are many reasons to be hopeful while remaining mindful of the barriers that remain. As moderator Mr. Eskandarsaid, “While we are seeing encouraging examples, challenges persist – especially concerns about privacy and personal data security. Many countries are reluctant to use digital innovation in this context, but we must find innovative approaches to solve such issues so that we might leverage the full pandemic-fighting power of ICT.”


Learn more about the digital health work for ITU’s Development Sector on their webpage.

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Photo by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images