The COVID-19 pandemic has brought concepts and theories that were traditionally reserved for college campuses and UN meetings to the forefront of our discourse: digitalpublic health, and the measures we take to protect it, is dominating our conversations.
Stay-at-home orders have forced us to consider how we might digitize our public health infrastructure, so we can leverage the technology at our disposal to respond to pandemics, diseases, and other public health crises. Digital public health uses the digital health ecosystem to inform, educate, and manage public health crises like COVID-19 at a national scale.
Considering COVID-19 is one of the first significant public health crises the western world has faced in the digital age, it’s a testing ground of sorts for the digital public health infrastructure. In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways digital public health is addressing COVID-19, as well as some examples of companies working on these solutions.
Reducing risk with education
The primary goal of public health programs are to mitigate and reduce risks to a population from public health hazards. Those hazards include everything from a pandemic like COVID-19 to the cumulative effects of smoking cigarettes.
Digital public health solutions can help educate populations like never before: instead of relying on traditional media and word-of-mouth, public health experts can disseminate info from official sources through social media, bluetooth, text alerts, and more.
To address a pandemic like COVID-19, getting more eyes on information like symptoms, gestation periods, and social distancing procedures is crucial in managing the overall response. While it’s important for a government to hold briefings and institute measures to contain something like a virus, the everyday person might miss, forget, or worse, ignore suggestions without the right incentives.
Digital public health systems overcome those obstacles by serving helpful content where people are most likely to see it, view it, and welcome it. This content comes from a centralized planner, like the CDC, to ensure accuracy and relevance.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are good examples, pinning their COVID-19 information centers to the tops of every users’ feeds to ensure visibility. They work closely with the CDC and WHO to disseminate factual, up-to-date information regarding guidelines and warnings.
Meanwhile, Apple and Google are collaborating on bluetooth warning systems to alert iPhone and Android users when they’ve come in contact with someone who’s tested positive for the disease
Digitizing healthcare and emergency response
Digital public health solutions also improve access to care by using the internet. They can also improve emergency response by helping first responders and healthcare officials assess, triage, and respond to requests for care with speed and deliberation.
Telehealth allows doctors, nurses, and MAs to meet with and monitor patients through video calls, monitoring services, reminders, and records. It’s a booming industry during COVID-19 since it can help patients meet with their doctors without either party risking infection.
It can reduce the workload for healthcare workers, which is crucial during a pandemic, without abandoning or neglecting patients who aren’t afflicted with the virus. Telehealth can even help doctors contact their patients with medium to high risk factors for the virus through automated messages, and update them on the latest guidance from the CDC.
When it comes to getting people help in emergencies, digital public health solutions can help first responders access critical information before, during, and after a call. In the early days of the pandemic, the number of 911 calls soared as the public felt the palpable anxiety induced by the virus. Although it took a while for call volumes to normalize, it was near impossible for first responders to keep up with the request for service. Many, however, were able to triage calls better than ever before by leveraging data about the virus and callers themselves, relative to other emergencies, so help could be dispatched efficiently.
Digital operations support
IoT and connected devices are also being used to provide operational support to healthcare workers and first responders in the field, granting instant access to the data and tools they need to address COVID-19. MedicAlert, for example, is sharing their members’ data with 911 so first responders can receive critical information immediately.
Meanwhile, 911 can access this data through emergency response data platforms like RapidSOS, so telecommunicators can keep first responders in the field appraised of things like COVID-19 symptoms, allergies, medications, and emergency contacts. All of this information can be transferred to healthcare providers if and when patients are handed off to hospitals, whether it’s through membership organizations like MedicAlert or PERS/wearables devices.
This data helps support healthcare operations by ensuring the flow of information is unbroken between a request for emergency service and hospital intake. Combined with the ever-evolving electronic medical record, these digital health solutions can increase efficiency, reduce error, and improve transparency among all the various touchpoints a patient experiences with their healthcare providers.
IoT and healthcare
The digital public health system that’s evolved in response to COVID-19 is leveraging big data and the internet of things to rapidly address shortcomings in testing, tracing, and healthcare operations. The speed with which our healthcare professionals and first responders have had to create a blueprint for modern pandemic preparedness will undoubtedly lay the foundations for future responses.
It will also have lasting implications for the way our healthcare system works in general. Now that they have more access to helpful information than ever before, they’ll be able to make more informed decisions about patients faster, with near-instant access to their whole history.
This will lead to better health outcomes, more efficient procedures, and will help lower the cost of treatment. As the world’s population ages, maintaining a holistic and preventative approach to healthcare is key to addressing many of these issues.
COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, and given us good reason to reinvigorate our healthcare system. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.