As the world reels under the recent outbreak of the coronavirus, governments across the globe are faced with several hard-hitting questions: What could have been done differently to contain the disease and stop it from sickening thousands of people all over the world? Can health technology play a bigger role in helping us avoid such viruses spreading in the future? What have we learned from previous outbreaks and how can we build on this to empower future generations?
While we may not have all the answers yet, there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel. Disruptive technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and the internet of things (IoT) are fast opening up possibilities that could only have been imagined before a few years ago. And while there’s still a long way to go, epidemiologists are already beginning to see certain tangible benefits.
Predicting Disease Risk And Ensuring Preparedness
Picture this: When an unknown illness first appears, public health officials find themselves scrambling to collate information and put together an effective response plan. Here’s where AI can step in and add tremendous value. Advanced AI algorithms can automatically mine through massive volumes of foreign-language news reports, animal and plant disease network data, and official statements to provide advance warnings that could help people avoid danger zones. AI technology can also sift through travel itinerary information and flight paths at breakneck speed, providing critical insights on which other cities a disease is likely to spread to. For instance, as a result of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission’s official announcement in December 2019, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan immediately tightened their inbound traveler screening processes.
Preventing The Spread Through Reliable, Real-Time Data
In addition to early warning systems, a robust response plan requires speedy identification of the starting point of a virus. The sooner this is done, the faster officials can quarantine the right individuals and curb further spread. In the case of the coronavirus, scientists believe human contact with live animals or slaughtered animal flesh may have been a leading cause of the disease. In fact, many of those initially infected either worked or shopped in the Huanan Seafood Market of Wuhan. Technologies like blockchain can play a vital role in such situations by enabling food traceability. At a time when metric tons of food regularly cross geographical borders, traceability makes it possible to swiftly zero in on contaminated products and get them off the shelves. This can eliminate the need for blanket warnings, which affect millions of people across the globe even when the cause is limited to a particular origin.
Preventing the spread of an infectious disease also requires real-time information and analytics. Advances in IoT and big data analytics are already revolutionizing the way we collect data during a health emergency. For instance, devices like smart thermometers and bench-top analyzers can analyze patient samples instantly, and this data can be fed to global disease monitoring systems in real time. It’s therefore no longer impossible to imagine a future where a worldwide network of virus-detection sensors coupled with facial recognition and location detection technology will help identify, trace and monitor individuals who may have contracted a particular virus.
Saving Lives Through Enabling Technologies
Another mover and shaker of the healthcare landscape is 5G, the fifth-generation wireless technology that powers dramatically faster communications. 5G has the potential to bring top minds in medicine to the front lines of an outbreak without any risk of exposure. It could also become a golden ticket for rural areas seeking easy access to internet-connected healthcare services. Recently, a major Chinese telecom equipment provider launched a 5G system between West China Hospital and the Chengdu Public Health Clinic Center of Sichuan University for remote diagnosis and treatment of the coronavirus.
These are just a few examples of the profound impact disruptive technologies can have in bolstering health officials’ efforts, mitigating the spread of disease and saving lives. In time, the successful implementation of these technologies could propel a giant leap forward in humanity’s battle against infectious diseases, making global health emergencies like the coronavirus a relic in history.