With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating digital transformation, it was time to build an AI based ‘Digital Companion’ BOT —Dr. Naila Siddiqui Kamal, MBBS, FR COG

Necessity is the mother of invention. This age-old proverb has been quoted many times, when describing new ways of doing things. Of course, this also applies to recent times with the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is a unique distinction worth noting.

The speed of adaption and adoption of disruptive technologies in general, and digital technologies in particular, is breathtaking.

COVID-19 has proven the biggest disrupter of healthcare delivery in recent times. Due to the unprecedented crisis, healthcare delivery models have taken a leap of faith in modern social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) technologies and moved from adapt to adopt phase in a very short time frame.

In the four months since the first patient case of COVID-19 was announced on 31st December 2019, many AI based solutions have come to light in the emerging clinical scenario. Artificial Intelligence based applications have been used in many ways but the following three have played a vital role: Firstly, for data analytics; secondly, for predictive modelling; and thirdly, for diagnosis and treatment recommendations. There are many instances in which AI can perform health care tasks as well as or better than humans with narrow AI being the main area of interest moving on from general AI.

At this juncture I would like to share our experience of developing a ‘Digital Companion’ for people during the current COVID-19 pandemic. This work was done in a collaboration between our digital transformation consultancy, MedRet Healthcare Ltd, and a technologybased company, GeoTechVision.

MedRet provided the clinical context focussing on the key issues that emerged as lacking in the wake of spread of this disease. The gaps that were highlighted by all major population health stakeholders were a lack of timely recognition of emerging trends in symptoms amongst the population, a lack of cascading of recommendations to population, a lack of provision of accessible support to those who were in social isolation with an element of uncertainty, conflicting news and advice.  And finally, a lack of connections with telehealth clinical consultation services.

So we set about creating a ‘digital tool’ that would address these needs. It can be accessed at https://covidchk. iplayxyz.com. Covidchk is a bot that has AI based algorithms fed in based on the emerging published clinical data to provide appropriate stratification of risk to individuals with relevant new onset symptoms. Furthermore, we added a symptom diary and a contact logging functionality to motivate people to log in their contacts in case they do get infected and people in contact could be informed.

As an example of the rapid speed of bringing a digital solution from the inception to implementation stage, we have a digital tool which empowers the individual in many ways as described above. It links to a clinician through a telehealth portal, who can send in an e- prescription to a nearby pharmacy which can then deploy medicines by courier or drones.

All the stakeholders are connected with a centralised dashboard based in the population health organisation, hence enabling them to be alerted at the outset when a concerning trend starts emerging. This allows them to deploy relevant resources where needed most. This is a unique and excellent rural and urban model of a healthcare ecosystem mitigating the challenges imposed upon population and healthcare delivery services in COVID-19 pandemic.

There is great potential for this digital solution which has already been used widely and has incorporated useful suggestions from the positive feedback it has received. The developers invite stakeholders to connect via [email protected] geotechvision.com and explore how it can be configured and customised to various population needs.

Obviously, the last thing the world needs is to be caught out again by a pandemic and not see the wave of outbreaks right at the outset when resources could be deployed appropriately. As WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged; “Without secure supply chains, the risk to healthcare workers around the world is real. Industry and governments must act quickly to boost supply, ease export restrictions and put measures in place to stop speculation and hoarding. We can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting health workers first.”

Use of AI generated triggers, linked in a health ecosystem, where personal use apps record new onset symptoms and collectively show up as an emerging trend on a population health dashboard, would trigger a cascade of actions to prepare for an eminent healthcare crisis. This could include signposting relevant equipment, pharma, and workforce industries to maintain smooth supply chains.

It is essential that the movers and shakers of decision-making recognise the magnitude of the current as well as the eminent crisis. Particularly in light of the risk of a second and third wave of the pandemic. More than ever, there is a need for them to engage with the clinical and academic experts in facilitating the technological solutions which will help in containing and riding over these waves.

Dr Naila Siddiqui Kamal is a senior gynaecologist, senior lecturer, Imperial School of Medicine London and CEO MedRet Healthcare Ltd