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Coronavirus: Challenges and opportunities for digital health

The Coronavirus pandemic threatens to overwhelm health services. Tackling it requires extreme measures to prevent infection. In this blog, we explore how the pandemic is impacting healthcare, and how digital health has the potential to save the day.

Introduction

Coronavirus is officially a pandemic now. So controlling the spread of COVID-19 (to give it its official name) is urgent and requires extreme measures. China completely locked down the province of Hubei and imposed wide-ranging controls across the rest of the country. In Italy, almost all travel and public events are banned. In South Korea, emergency text alerts are sent giving details of every place that an infected person has visited. But fundamentally, the goal is to try and prevent infected people coming into contact with others. However that poses a huge challenge in the healthcare setting. How can you diagnose and treat patients without putting other sick and vulnerable people at risk of infection? This is where digital health apps can make a huge difference. But these apps still have to comply with data protection laws.

The impact of Coronavirus

Despite what some politicians say, Coronavirus is shaping up to be a global emergency. One of the biggest impacts is on the healthcare system. Hospitals are placed under pressure by the need to quarantine patients. Medical staff are exposed to a much higher infection risk. People are visiting the doctor or local hospital if they suspect they have the virus, putting other vulnerable and sick people at risk. Often, national laws exacerbate this because they require people to get a doctor’s note in order to take time off work.

Then there are the impacts on the rights and freedoms we have all come to expect. Some of these impacts are very visible, like Italy closing all shops, except food stores and pharmacies and the US banning travel from most of Europe. Other impacts are less visible, like the tension between data protection and the need to track people that have had contact with an infected person. Often, this means revealing their details to co-workers and members of the public.

In the midst of all this, technology can come to the rescue. This is being seen in places like South Korea, where emergency message systems are used to provide regular updates to the population. But the biggest potential impact is from digital health.

Chino.io eBook on MDR and eHealth

Four ways digital health is already helping

Digital health applications can help solve several of the big issues related to Coronavirus. Let’s look at some concrete examples.

Using chatbots to give advice

One problem is encouraging people to behave correctly if they suspect they have Coronavirus. One Italian company has used its technology to power a chatbot that lets you evaluate your symptoms and tells you the appropriate action you should take. This is being used by the APSS hospital in Trento as part of its response to the pandemic. At the same time, many other health chatbots have updated their systems to alert users and governments of any potential cases they identify.

Screenshot from paginemediche's Coronavirus chatbotEnabling remote diagnosis and telemedicine

Many digital health apps are designed to help doctors treat patients remotely. The recent emergency funding bill in the US includes specific funding to promote remote diagnosis. And remote diagnosis is already being used in China, where the virus has hit especially hard.

Keeping people connected

Controlling Coronavirus will require large numbers of people to self-isolate. This means that their mental health may well start to suffer. Parla Con Noi is an innovative Italian app that helps patients stay in touch with their loved ones.

The Parle Con Noi app from CBA group in Italy

Improving epidemiology and data collection

Good data collection is a critical requirement in any epidemic or pandemic. Here, digital health apps can really help. AI can help predict the spread of the virus, allowing governments to make better judgements about what restrictions are needed. Dashboards can be used to monitor the current situation, helping to ensure people have reliable information.

The privacy issue

Digital health is undoubtedly helping with the fight against coronavirus. However, this help comes with a potential price to pay. Specifically, it can have a big impact on privacy and data protection. Firstly, not all digital health apps are equally good at securing personal data, and we have already seen reports of data breaches relating to the outbreak in China. Secondly, governments have to release a certain amount of data when they are trying to track people that have been in contact with an infected person. In some cases, this can reveal some quite embarrassing personal details. There have even been cases of hate crimes against people suspected of having the virus.

How can you speed things up without risk?

Clearly, with coronavirus time is of the essence. So, as an app developer, it can be tempting to focus on the functionality of your app over details like data protection. The trouble is, if you get things wrong, you are still accountable and can face huge fines under GDPR. And getting it right in this situation is even more of a legal and technical minefield than usual. This is where you need to follow the saying “More speed less haste”. In other words, take the time you need to get it right, rather than rushing to get something done as fast as possible.

If you are working on an app that will help address the problems of coronavirus, you have to navigate a confusing set of requirements that are often in tension with each other. These include balancing the requirements for public health against the individual’s rights to privacy. As experts in this field, we can offer you both the legal and technical assistance to help overcome these issues and get your application out there faster. Contact us if you would like to find out more.

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About Toby Moncaster

Toby is a seasoned technical author who loves data security & networks. He spent a decade in R&D, project and product management. He received a computer science PhD from Cambridge and lives in Berlin.
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About Nicola Brunello

Nicola is a legal counsel, and expert in IT and Data Protection law. He worked for major law firms before the GDPR prompted him to focus entirely on IT Law, combining his passions: law and computers.