There are two worldwide trends that have existed for the past decade and have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first one is the growing value of safety that follows the growing value of life. While the overwhelming importance of safety was apparent before the global pandemic, it became abundantly clear in 2020 when the world has closed down to save lives. Health became the prerogative, conquering freedom, economy, quality of life, and other common values. People, governments, and world leaders felt they should sacrifice a lot for the health and safety of themselves and others. While this might sound obvious to a modern human being, it’s worth recalling that it is the first time in history that something like that happened.
The second huge worldwide trend is digitization. Digitization needs no introduction. We’ve seen the speed with which technology improves, and most of us are aware that probably the worldwide lockdown wouldn’t even happen if we weren’t surrounded by smartphones, video messengers, online shopping, online banking, opportunities for remote work, and other perks of the Internet era.
It’s therefore not surprising that these two trends have joined powers, offering us healthtech and the ability to monitor, improve, and control health remotely.
In this article, we’ll go through directions which healthtech has taken to live up to today’s challenges.
Remote Patient Monitoring
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) focuses on collecting patient data remotely, as the name suggests. This enables health professionals to diagnose a patient and keep an eye on them ― again, remotely. In times of pandemic, it’s useful not only for cutting the costs and the time spent on each patient, but also to keep both patients and clinicians safe. So it’s not surprising that RPM technologies have experienced a solid growth in the past year. Yet, it’s also true that some of them have existed for a while now.
The most popular remote diagnostic technologies that patients have been using for the past decade include glucose meters for diabetics, heart rate and blood pressure monitors, surveillance monitors for the mentally or physically impaired, infertility monitoring and treatment, and nutrition logs. Remote patient monitoring systems have been used widely by patients suffering from chronic diseases, patients with limited mobility, patients recovering from surgery, those living in rural areas, and the elderly. Now this technology is spreading to other groups of people. Remote patient monitoring has become widespread among those suffering from infectious, chronic, or acute diseases.
It’s hard to overestimate the benefits of remote patient monitoring systems. Lower costs and improved access are just some of them. In times of emergencies, RPM helps to avoid overcrowded hospitals and constant extra hours. Clinicians also get more insights into the patient’s condition and can evaluate it better at any given moment. At the same time, patients learn how to better manage their health on their own.
As mentioned before, wide groups of people have turned to remote patient monitoring to save the medical resources and keep themselves and the doctors safe. To a larger extent, this refers to non-COVID patients who happen to have other infections, chronic or acute diseases in the middle of the world that’s fighting the pandemic. However, remote patient monitoring has been used on COVID patients as well. In some clinics, RPM devices, such as thermometers and oximeters connected to the digital platforms, were given to COVID-19 patients who were not hospitalized. Most patients found this helpful, both for their physiological and psychological states. It’s safe to say that remote patient monitoring will stay with us and continue to improve from the tech point of view.
How does remote patient monitoring work?
Software for remote patient monitoring focuses on collecting and analyzing data. It makes use of multiple digital technologies. Wireless technologies in healthcare usually have common components, such as sensors, local data storage, a central repository, and a data analysis functionality. Then, however, technology depends on the specific goals and features of the device.
Limitations of remote patient monitoring
RPM is not without limitations. Firstly, there are issues with accessibility. One needs reliable broadband connectivity, which is often unavailable in rural areas. Secondly, there are financial considerations: health facilities in urban areas might not be able to afford the latest RPM technologies. Similarly, not all patients have access to technology on their end. Even smartphones can become a problem, especially for the elderly.
There are also concerns with data security: patients often fear their health data might be used by third parties for financial gain. Clinicians, in turn, don’t trust patients with equipment and fear the data that’s collected is not accurate. There might be some truth to their concerns: no devices are error-free, and healthtech should definitely work on improving their reliability.
E-passes, health apps, and vaccine passports
We are still far from a clear understanding of how the world after the lockdown will work. However, it’s pretty obvious that vaccination control will in one way or another be a part of the new post-COVID reality. Total vaccination faces many challenges: economical, geographical, political. Besides, there is a growing anti-vaccination movement and a dozen conspiracy theories that proclaim the dangers of vaccines, needles, technology, and personally Bill Gates. In the world that’s so much into health and safety, it will be impossible to just let it go and let the people choose for themselves in a situation when each one can be a health hazard.
So far, we have a number of propositions from different sources: WHO, EU, UK’s National Health Service, the governments of U.S. and New Zealand, etc. Companies and airlines rush to introduce some form of vaccination control, which will allow them to work again.
This isn’t something new. Paper vaccination certificates have existed for a while, and although you’re rarely asked to show them at the airport, often you need them to get a visa. What changes is the software behind it ― more precisely, the introduction of software into the health control niche.
Health apps for COVID-19
Apps are, of course, the first ones to catch our attention. It’s been a joke for a while now that there is an app for everything, and people who say it are not wrong. Low and behold, IBM’s Digital Health Pass is already here. Their website says that the app is “designed to enable businesses to verify health credentials for employees, customers, fans and travelers entering their site based on their own criteria”. For example, the criteria could be coronavirus test results, vaccination, or temperature.
IBM isn’t the only hero on the horizon. CommonPass, a health app by the nonprofit organization the Commons Project, began its work even before the global pandemic and grew quickly when their tool became so extremely relevant. Now, it does things like notifying users of local travel rules, such as having to provide proof of a negative virus test, directs the user to the nearest test station, and then verifies the result. Clear is another company with their own Covid app. Being a security company, it used to implement biometric technology to confirm people’s identities at airports and elsewhere. Now, their app works towards the common goal of ensuring public spaces are COVID-free.
mHealth app developers face challenges common for many other apps: privacy and security. App developers reassure us that hey do everything possible to mitigate the risks. Health passes don’t share specific details. Instead, they act as a green light that shows that everything is OK. What exactly, why, and how it is OK remains to be the knowledge inside the soulless machine.
Vaccine passports ― a document that shows that you’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 ― receive plenty of attention. They seem to generate hope and anxiety simultaneously, hinting that we’ll be able to travel as soon as we get the vaccine and threatening the unvaccinated with life that’s sad and lonely.
A number of governments including EU member states and the USA promised some form of digital vaccine passports in the near future. Brussels proposed Digital Green Certificate while airlines such as Etihad Airways and Emirates are planning to start using a digital travel pass, developed by the International Air Transport Association. However, these ambitious plans have not yet come to life. The challenge is obvious: a passport implies a document that’s accepted internationally. Unlike the app, it should be available to everyone and still protect the privacy of the beholder. It’s possible the vaccine passport will be just another “yellow card” ― International Certificate of Vaccination. Everyone who has traveled to places that require vaccination against malaria, diphtheria and other more local infectious diseases requires a yellow card. This one will simply be more widespread ― and, perhaps, more digitized?
Digitization will make the process much smoother. But even more crucially, it might make it safer. EU’s law enforcement has already reported a spike in fake negative COVID-19 test results. Same can easily happen with vaccination certificates.
But there are also concerns that have to be taken into account. Vaccine passports may heighten inequality, leaving behind people who don’t have access to the vaccines. It might take years for vaccines to be available globally: for now, it’s only a handful of countries whose citizens are being treated with WHO-approved shots. It’s also worth remembering that there are people unable to prove their identity via passports or similar documents who still might be vaccinated. And finally, concerns regarding privacy and personal data remain. Many point out that such technology should be open source not to end up monopolized by a government or a company.
Other kinds of e-passes
While in English-speaking countries lockdown is getting less strict or eliminated altogether, we as a society focus more on safe travelling and returning back to normal in a global sense. However, in some parts of the world the rules are still strict, and different kinds of e-passes are issued not to be recognizes globally, but to allow people to commute or go shopping. Such is the case in Kolkata ― the capital of India’s West Bengal State. While West Bengal is in lockdown, the Kolkata police have launched a dedicated website, where one can apply for an e-pass to commute. So while technology is yet to save us from loneliness and boredom that comes with the inability to go on a trip, it already helps people with more burning problems.
Keeping an eye on healthtech 2021
Healthtech will continue to grow in 2021, and we’re excited to see the changes it will bring to our lives. When COVID-19 is no longer a threat (or at least, not to an extent that it is now), the technology of remote patient monitoring and different kinds of remoted health control will remain, making our healthcare smoother, more inclusive, less expensive for healthcare providers, and ultimately better.