It’s hard to overstate the effects of the viral disease COVID-19 (commonly known as “coronavirus”), which the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11 – the first time a pandemic has been announced since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak. Highly contagious and with symptoms not appearing until days after infection, coronavirus has swept across the globe and is now confirmed on every continent except Antarctica, disrupting supply chains and putting countries into lockdown from China to Italy.
While our fast-paced, modern world means that disease spreads more rapidly via mass transit and international travel, however, the technology enabled by our digital world allows us to treat illness in new, and better, ways. In this piece we’ll explore some technologies that are revolutionizing patient care – during the coronavirus outbreak and beyond.
Wuhan, China, has been the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and has also become a testing ground for the use of robotics to stem the contagion. Robots were used to deliver food safely to patients living in quarantine and to disinfect streets and entire hospital wards. According to Pan Jing, CEO of Shanghai-based robotics company TMiRob, the disinfecting robot sprays hydrogen peroxide from its head and uses nine ultraviolet lights to sterilize floors; it also is equipped with a navigation system allowing it to avoid obstacles.
A robot was also used to treat the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States, in a Washington state hospital. In addition to preventing transmission, the use of robots also cuts down on the number of staff, hazmat suits, and other protective equipment that would be otherwise be required to serve so many people.
Gaming and Virtual Reality (VR)
Robots are not the only technology providing direct improvement to patient care. Virtual reality (VR) has been put to use inside of hospitals in order to reduce the possibility of infection of hospital staff and cut down on the amount of time and expense. In a video showing how the VR equipment is used in China, Dr. Wang Kuhua, Dean of Kunming Medical University, notes that it takes staff 30 minutes to don the protective suits that they need to check on patients four or five times a day. “The introduction of VR technology is very cost effective in terms of time and medical supplies,” he says.
Beyond coronavirus, surgeons-in-training have been using VR for years to train hand-eye coordination, in general, and to practice specific surgical procedures, in particular. Through 3-D animation, medical students can learn the steps of different operations, recognize risks, and track progress. These features hone students’ skills, allowing them to score more highly on the surgical simulators that have long been a part of medical training.
Remote Diagnosis and Care
Remote diagnosis will also play an important role in treating coronavirus patients in the U.S. Among its guidelines on how to handle the expected influx of patients, the CDC advises healthcare facilities to “instruct patients to use available advice lines, patient portals, on-line self-assessment tools,” and “identify staff to conduct telephonic and telehealth interactions with patients.”
Telehealth technologies that enable remote care are also leveling the playing field for rural or remote citizens – whether for coronavirus or any other illness. As medical centers located in the most remote areas get connected to the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), they’re able to access data for analytics, remote monitoring solutions, and much more. Beyond helping prevent the spread of disease, the potential for remote diagnosis, via a combination of video conferencing and artificial intelligence called a “virtual hospital,” can mean the difference between life or death for patients unable to see specialists in person.
Coronavirus Tests the Waters
While it’s impossible to predict the eventual outcome of the coronavirus pandemic, and how many people will be affected, many technologies are already hard at work aiding in both treatment and prevention. If countries can figure out how to slow its spread, through technologies like robots, VR, and telehealth, the disease can be contained enough to allow herd immunity to take hold, or even time to develop a vaccine. In this way, coronavirus is testing the waters of how countries are able to respond to global pandemics – and what technologies can help.
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