The news today is flush with articles and reports about the COVID-19 Coronavirus epidemic that is gripping the world’s attention. Unfortunately, such pathogenic events are not novel to mankind, to wit: the Black Death of the 14th Century, the 1918 flu pandemic coming on the heels of World War I, the Poliomyelitis (Polio) scares of the mid-20th Century, and more recently, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Indeed, the ‘common’ influenza and antibiotic resistant tuberculosis, while not as sensational in terms of the latter pathogens, are equally as deadly, particularly to those who may have compromised immune systems.
The Coronavirus provides an opportunity for stakeholders such as First Responders and communications operators to assess preparedness of their infrastructure in light of this new scourge, much like how the tragic events of 9/11 focused attention on aging communications infrastructure and protocols for supporting service during an untoward event. Today, it is highly relevant to consider whether or not post 9/11 investments in people, processes, and technologies are at a sufficient readiness level to address the demands that are to be expected from modern communications infrastructure.
Evolving the Call Center to Digital Engagement Platforms
Although digital health modalities are continuing to advance with new mobile health (mHealth) capabilities such as Telehealth services, on average, most interactions between a consumer and a health system start with a voice call to the healthcare system’s call center. While great efforts are being made to replace this 20th Century technology with Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled chatbots services operating as a hosted cloud service, excessive call demand from patients seeking services could easily overwhelm the capacity of existing call center infrastructure, both in terms of equipment and personnel. Reliance on urgent care centers to offload demand is equally problematic as in the case of a virulent pathogen such as Coronavirus. It is preferable to avoid massing potential carriers of the virus together with those who are not infected and/or are providing immediate care. Fortunately, for healthcare organizations and their communications partners, some possible solutions to consider are Virtual Health services (i.e., remote care) and Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM), the latter administered and operated after a suspect diagnosis. The advantages of these approaches are that patients can be managed ‘in-situ’, depending on the severity of the illness, mitigating unnecessary travel and potentially optimizing care volumes while providing real-time monitoring of patients. Should hospital-based care be necessary, patients can be transported to nearby healthcare facilities. There are many communication partners who can offer robust wireless (4G/5G) data transport services and enabling platforms to achieve this vision.
Adopting Telecommuting and Distance-Based Engagements to Mitigate Physical Travel
While not always practical or feasible (such as in the case of certain services), there are multiple telecommuting options available to promote distance-based engagements via telepresence technologies. Here, communication partners have an opportunity to leverage recent investments in advanced 4G/5G and fiber-plant networks to promote utilization of such infrastructure. In this way, the likelihood of work-based spread of pathogens and attendant infection is reduced. As an added benefit, telepresence tends to promote convenience (reduced loss of time due to commuting) and is a ‘greener’ choice by reducing the volume of transportation based on the fossil fueled vehicles. For students, telecommuting is already being employed by some countries in response to the current Coronavirus epidemic, providing continuance of educational services to minimize disruptions to curriculums. This is eerily reminiscent of the situation that Sir Isaac Newton faced in the 17th Century, when he left Cambridge to avoid an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in order to continue his studies. It is instructive to note that some of his most lasting contributions to science were achieved via distance-based engagement with his colleagues!
Harnessing Data Analytics to Promote Better Situational Awareness and Intelligence
Monitoring of community-based spread of disease is challenging, as it usually is retrospective, meaning that it is evidentiary after the detection and presence of the pathogen. Proscriptive monitoring that uses predictive based approaches is far more desirable especially when a pathogen is highly virulent, as impacted areas can be quarantined much more rapidly to limit the spread of disease. The technology underpinning modern data analytics provides sophisticated capabilities for the user, especially in the form of machine learning (ML) based AI. This technology can efficiently and practically predict community-based spread of disease based on multiple scenarios and/or factors, especially those related to the social determinants of health and social data networking (i.e., Internet traffic, website visits, purchased, and other on-line behaviors). For enterprising leaders, healthcare organizations in partnership with communication service providers have a unique and singular opportunity to implement data analytics. They can harness such information leading to better information and knowledge about the general health and wellness of communities. Furthermore, geofencing technologies associated with Location Based Services (LBS) may be employed to create virtual sectors where healthcare services could be concentrated, either to address an epidemic or to protect healthy areas from potential exposure to a pathogen via monitoring of physical and virtual traffic. While privacy and security issues are extremely vital considerations, digital public health monitoring can be quite effectively accomplished with appropriate measures that are compliant to Federal and State regulations. Fortuitously, ensuring the continued availability of communications infrastructure to support such services has largely been achieved already given communications vendor investments which have been made since 9/11, including the ability to integrate multiple data sets to governance parties via proven interoperability models.
Implementing New Distribution Models by Mobilizing Autonomous Fleets with Auto-Sanitization
Autonomous vehicles and drone delivery services are just starting to be phased into commercial operation. Inherently, such services provide the means to safely and efficiently deliver goods and products when a community may be compromised because of the spread of a pathogen. Given the economic impact that the current epidemic has demonstrated, accelerating the availability of such services is highly advantageous and arguably, presents a favorable return on investment (ROI) over lassitude or maintenance of current practices. Indeed, it is often the face of adversity that heralds the adoption of new technologies and/or processes. This situation is not unique. New distribution models which employ autonomous vehicles and drones would be able to service impacted communities by delivering medicines and/or medical devices, and when combined with the aforementioned Virtual Health and/or RPM services, it forms the basis for connecting patients with healthcare providers while reducing risk to the health of others. Such capabilities will require an acceleration of investment in communications infrastructure to ensure high-performance, safety, and consistency of service. The current field of incumbents including communication providers should be able to rise to the challenge by partnering together. Finally, the additive feature of auto-sanitization technologies would also assure that such platforms don’t become disease vectors in of themselves, as microbial reduction solutions for high-technology platforms such as phones, tablets, and other high-touch devices have been in the marketplace for many years.
In conclusion, the Coronavirus epidemic minimally presents an opportunity for all stakeholders – particularly those in healthcare and in communications – to examine best practices for managing the population’s health and wellness by considering new perspectives which adopt enabling technologies and processes to promote everyone’s general welfare.
This article was sponsored by TruAccess Networks.