Robin Hill

Keeping COVID-19 a non-factor

February 27, 2020
By Robin Hill

There’s nothing like a new “sky is falling” health threat to get the media all excited and focused on healthcare.

The latest, of course, is the Wuhan novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which made its first appearance at the end of 2019 and has since dominated the non-political headlines. This despite the fact that the CDC considers the plain old flu a much more urgent threat since it has killed roughly 12,000 Americans and caused 210,000 hospitalizations so far this season versus 13 confirmed diagnoses of the coronavirus in the U.S. as of mid-February.

What is drawing the concerns, however, is how swiftly the coronavirus can spread and kill, which is one of the reasons 195 people were isolated in California in the first mandatory quarantine issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 50 years. To date, the coronavirus has spread faster than swine flu or SARS, and the early death toll after initial discovery has been faster as well. Without a strong effort for detection and containment here in the U.S., the numbers could be telling a much different story.

Still, it’s early in the virus’ lifecycle. One of the factors that is keeping healthcare executives up at night is that the coronavirus’ symptoms, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath, are virtually indistinguishable from those of the flu, or even the common cold.

The degree of severity of the warning signs can vary greatly too, according to the CDC. Some people may fall deathly ill right away, while others exhibit barely any symptoms. This further exacerbates the risk of a more virulent outbreak since many of the people who have, in fact, been exposed to the coronavirus may simply assume they have an ordinary illness. As a result, they will go on with their daily lives, threatening not only their own lives but those of everyone with whom they come in contact.

Of course, COVID-19 itself is only a symptom of a much larger issue – how rapidly any population-threatening infectious disease can spread. It wasn’t long ago that the Ebola virus was gaining the same media fury that COVID-19 is today. There have been others (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome/SARS, Legionnaires’ Disease, the Black Death), and there will be others.

The good news is healthcare now has a weapon that can help stop the spread faster and mitigate the threat posed by these outbreaks – telehealth and remote patient monitoring (RPM).

Analytics and information
One of the reasons fast-moving diseases can spread so quickly is that gathering information about it often takes time. In the meantime, the disease continues to spread until it is understood well enough to A) identify that this is a new threat and B) takes steps to stop the spread while C) protecting healthcare workers from deadly exposure.

Telehealth and RPM can shortcut this process significantly. Telehealth enables physicians and other experts to examine people who have acquired, or may have acquired, the condition without being in physical proximity. The result is that researchers at the CDC in Atlanta can speak with and look at the symptoms of quarantined patients in California, Michigan and Rhode Island in the same day, or even in the same hour, without having to leave their offices or lose access to all the tools at their disposal. Video examinations also mean those experts are not directly exposed to the virus itself.

RPM is even more powerful, because it can be used to monitor not only those who have already acquired the condition but others who may have been exposed for signs of the disease. The constant flow of data helps virologists understand the lifecycle and effects of the disease so they can better determine the public health threat and actions that should be taken as a result.

At the local level, RPM enables physicians to monitor their patients for symptoms of the viral outbreak and react faster to stop the potential spread. The data they are gathering can be uploaded to a central repository to help with identifying the spread of the disease. This information can be used to alert local authorities to viral “hot spots” and, when combined with predictive analytics, suggest when more drastic actions (such as imposing a quarantine) are needed.

Telehealth and RPM can also be used to encourage patients who are already using these technologies to perform a self-check if they begin to exhibit known symptoms. The communication and educational pathways built into the platform can bring information to patients proactively rather than waiting for them to become informed and concerned on their own. If they suspect they may have acquired the disease, the technology can then inform them of the next steps to take (avoid unprotected contact with others, come in for a visit, contact the CDC, etc.) to address their health issues while helping to stop the potential spread.

Looking to the future
There will always be another outbreak (such as coronavirus, Ebola, Zika virus, etc.) or even a health-threatening natural or other disaster, which begs the question “How can technology be used to do an even better job in the future?”

Imagine a world where physicians are gathering reliable health information on a daily basis on all their patients, not just the sickest ones. A smartwatch could be feeding data that shows a fever coming on, a change in respiration or heart rate or other symptoms that indicate a potential issue. The physician could initiate a video chat to get a quick look and determine if more actions need to be taken.

Having this type of electronic connection to all patients also means physicians could reach out directly to all their patients to provide quality, reliable information rather than risking patients getting poor information through random Internet searches. It could be the healthcare equivalent of an “Amber Alert” or the messages many municipalities are implementing to warn their citizens about impending dangers or concerns. Only rather than sending disembodied texts or robocalls, it could be the patients’ own physician issuing a voice or video message and education.

This proactive approach from a trusted source would enable patients to prepare for and avoid threats more effectively rather than having to react to them after the fact.

Minimizing the threat
The technology of today has been very effective in containing the coronavirus in the U.S. Hopefully it continues to do so and helps bring the threat under control throughout the world. But we have only begun to scratch the surface.

In the future, we will use technology to become even more adept at avoiding coronavirus-level epidemics – and improve our health on a daily basis as well.

About the author: Robin Hill is the chief clinical officer at Vivify Health.