The highly infectious nature of COVID-19 is challenging grief and bereavement. In many places across the World, families are forbidden to say goodbye to their dying loved ones in hospitals. On the other hand, patients, especially those who are deteriorating quickly, are forced into the possibility of ending their lives in isolation.

Even if patients are not at risk of death, there are limited ways for medical staff to update families on the patients’ progress. Medical facilities have since relied on technology to establish empathetic connections between intensive care unit (ICU) patients and their families, shall the situation become too risky for physical visits to take place.

Improving communications  

Yet, common video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangout have raised security concerns as these applications were not designed and meant to be used in a sensitive medical setting. Often, ICU and ward staff are too preoccupied with the overwhelming number of incoming patients that they do not have the time to make calls or text messages to families.

As such, platforms offering secured connections for clinicians, patients, and families are changing the game. For example, voice technology platform Refero announced in April that they are providing their protected virtual conferencing service free to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) trusts, pharmacies, and primary care clinics. The company hopes that medical staff can continue to connect with patients or assist their colleagues within a safe and comfortable environment.

Reducing cross infections

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), healthcare-associated infections affect one in 25 in-hospital patients every day and it accounts for more than 90,000 deaths annually. Sanitization is paramount but there has been a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), so healthcare workers risk infecting themselves and others facing the highly contagious coronavirus. Robots are deployed to prevent a place of healing from becoming a source of infection.

The Xenex robot uses ultraviolet light (UVC) disinfection methodologies to create cellular damage in microorganisms to achieve fast and effective systematic disinfection within medical facilities. The company reported, in one of its peer-reviewed papers, that the amount of Clostridium difficile (C.diff; a kind of colon inflammation and diarrhea-causing bacteria)infection rates in ICU were reduced by 70% with the use of the robot. There was also a surge in order as COVID-19 escalates.

Wearables such as hand hygiene monitoring wristband developed by Vitalacy and badge created by Biovigil, remind care providers constantly to wash their hands and also keep their commitment towards hygiene transparent, as one can easily detect whether physicians have got their hands clean before consultation by noticing color change on the gadgets.

Predicting the number of required beds

Most importantly, technology helps to predict and allocate resources required by the ICU during the pandemic. UK’s National Health Service (NHS) piloted a machine learning system in four hospitals this April to find out if algorithms can efficiently forecast the demands for ICU beds and ventilators. Known as the COVID-19 Capacity Planning and System (CPAS), the system was designed by a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge led by Professor Mihaela van der Schaar.

The system was trained using de-identified data obtained from 4000 NHS patients and participating hospitals are using it to test on simulated environments to examine how the system will react in various scenarios such as the sudden surge in the number of hospital beds or suitably cater to patients of different demographic background. The research team hopes that the machine learning system will not only assists in capacity planning but also facilitates better decision making using the available data.

Although technology is here to help but it has to be easily learned, configured and adapted to be useful. The unprecedented nature of the pandemic is an opportunity to test if technology can lead the medical community into a more sustainable future. This September, AIMed is also gathering fellow clinicians and experts to each share their insights, challenges, and journey of using artificial intelligence (AI) and related tools to bring a change in ICU.

AIMed ICU will be a virtual event taking place on 22 September and it’s free to all clinicians an accredited CME provider. Agenda and details are now available here.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.