Big Tech: Heroes of Healthcare?

Technology has also played a role in improving the safe evaluation and triage of patients through advancements in virtual care, telehealth, and remote patient monitoring.

By Shivin Verma

The COVID pandemic has tested the preparedness and adaptability of the US healthcare system and exposed its vulnerabilities in the process. Where policy is lacking, tech companies have been able to step in, providing an opportunity for such firms to redeem the decline in public trust over recent years. Could the large role tech firms have taken in supporting healthcare reverse the public perception of big tech?

Global research and advisory firm Gartner outlines the key issues arising from COVID as: the overload of patients in epicenters, shortage of equipment, need for better resource utilization, and more front-line workers. To combat these, companies prioritize risk reduction, safe evaluation & triage, and resource utilization.

The technology focus of risk reduction includes business intelligence & analytics, performance improvements, AI, and remote working tools. Apple and Google have released an exposure notification API to be used by developers creating contact tracing and notification apps for public health authorities. In doing this, they are tackling one of the hardest parts of reducing the risk of virus spread by tracking virus exposure directly through smartphones. The companies have also announced plans to include an optional Bluetooth-based contact tracing function in their operating systems that would enable public health agencies to gain deeper insight. Apple described the plans as “a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.” Google also developed a resource to provide aggregated tracking data from smartphones to reflect trends in mobility. Users can download “Community Mobility Reports” to observe large-scale mobility trends as a percentage of change in visiting volume. For instance, as mobihealthnews.com describes, the data has been used to observe “a 56% decline in mobility trends for Massachusetts parks from the February 16 reporting baseline to the most recent data collection date of March 29.” Facebook made similar efforts as they developed maps using aggregated user data to track whether people are staying home and the probability that users will come into contact with each other.

Technology has also played a role in improving the safe evaluation and triage of patients through advancements in virtual care, telehealth, and remote patient monitoring. In response to the need for virtual care, Microsoft developed a chatbot, named the CoVIg-19 Plasma Bot, to help recovered patients donate plasma for research and treatment. The bot helps survivors determine if they are fit to donate plasma by screening with typical blood donation questions. If eligible, It also provides users with the closest plasma donation center. Microsoft’s chatbot allows users to evaluate their status from a safe distance, thus reducing the risk of virus exposure. With a similar goal in mind, LabCorp recently developed the first COVID-19 diagnostic test eligible for at-home sampling. The “Pixel by LabCorp COVID-19 Test” kit provides patients with nasal cotton swabs and saline for testing at home. The samples are then mailed in an insulated package to the facilities for LabCorp testing. On a smaller scale, tech startups have also played a role in developing safe evaluation tools. Health-data startup Innovaccer developed an app to facilitate remote-monitoring and virtual calls as well as help health care providers compile the necessary forms for case-reporting. In addition, Jefferson Health system partnered with LifeLink to develop a chatbot using AI to screen users for virus symptoms.

Lastly, companies have worked to utilize tech resources towards COVID relief efforts. In response to the unemployment surge, Amazon pledged to hire an additional 100,000 workers and Facebook said it will donate $100 million to small businesses. Apple announced a donation of several million masks to health care organizations. HP’s contribution comes from its digital manufacturing network to utilize 3D printing to provide hospital-grade equipment to anybody with a 3D printer, including hand-free door openers, face masks, ventilators, among others. HPE has utilized resources through its company Aruba, which assisted in converting ferries into medical ships. 

FundamentalVR, a tool for training surgeons through simulations, has been used to help clinicians get familiar with necessary ventilation skills. This is just one example among various tech companies providing creative solutions to health care problems.

Where these tech giants were previously criticized for their excessive collection of data, they are now able to use this data to track and reduce the risk of the virus. Whether their actions now could change the public perception of their practices in the future remains uncertain. Nonetheless, it suggests a shift in the role of big tech in healthcare.

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