Although much less fatal than the Ebola and previous SARS virus epidemics, the current coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has spread to more people (more than 125,000 in fewer than 50 days) in more countries (more than 120 countries) in a much shorter time frame (50 days). On March 11, 2020, the WHO has formally declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Like many other outbreaks, COVID-19 faces serious challenges such as identifying the origin of the epidemic (or the patient zero), reducing the spread of the virus, and having enough medical resources to treat all the patients with severe symptoms.
Pain points in a virus pandemic
The accelerated spread of COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated many structural problems in in the governments’ health response systems. All these problems point to an inability to scale the solution according to the expansion of the outbreak.
Tracing the origin of an outbreak, quarantining potentially infected patients, treating seriously ill patients, and preventing cross-infection between medical staff and patients all require tremendous human resource; and an accelerated epidemic will strain the system even further.
Is there a solution that is easily scalable and automated?
What is IoT?
The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a scalable and automated solution that has seen explosive growth in other industries such as automated manufacturing, wearable consumer electronics, and asset management.
IoT consists of several functional components: data collection, transfer, analytics, and storage. Data is collected by sensors installed on mobile, end-user hardware like phones, robots, or health monitors. Then, the mobile data is sent to the central cloud server for analytics and decision-making, such as if a machine requires proactive maintenance to prevent unexpected breakdown or if a patient needs to come in for a check-up.
The current applications of IoT during COVID-19
Currently, IoT is already used to manage some aspects of the COVID-19. For example, drones are already used for public surveillance to ensure quarantine and the wearing of masks. AI has also been used to predict future outbreak areas.
Using IoT to dissect an outbreak
With the numerous and diverse datasets collected by mobile devices, IoT can have many more applications during an epidemic.
IoT can be used to trace the origin of an outbreak. A recent study by researchers at MIT used aggregated mobile phone data to trace, in granular details of short distances and periods, the spread of dengue virus in Singapore during 2013 and 2014. Therefore, overlaying geographic information system (GIS) on IoT mobile data from infected patients can do two things. Upstream, it can assist epidemiologists in their search for patient zero; downstream, it can help identify all the persons who have come into contact with the infected patients and may, therefore, also be infected.
Using IoT to ensure compliance to quarantine
IoT can also be used to ensure patient compliance once the potentially infected persons enter into quarantine. Public health personnel can monitor which patients remain quarantined, and which patients have breached the quarantine. The IoT data will also help them track down who else may be exposed due to the breach.
Using IoT to manage patient care
The scalability of IoT also comes in handy for monitoring all the patients who are high-risk enough to warrant quarantine but not serious enough to warrant in-hospital care. Right now, the daily check-up of the patients is done manually by healthcare workers who go door-to-door. In one reported instance, a healthcare worker had patients standing in their apartment balconies, so that he could fly a drone up to take their temperatures with an infrared thermometer. With IoT, the patients can have their temperatures taken and upload the data with their mobile devices to the cloud for analysis. This way, healthcare workers can not only collect more data using less time but also reduce the chance for cross-infection with the patients.
In addition, IoT can provide relief to the overworked staff at the hospital. IoT has already been used in the remote monitoring of in-home patients with chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes. In hospitals, telemetry, the transmission of biometric measurements like heartbeat and blood pressure from wearable, wireless instruments on patients to the central monitoring has been used to monitor a large number of patients with minimal staff. Here, IoT can be used to reduce the workload and increase the efficiency of the medical staff, all the while reducing the exposure of healthcare workers to infection.
The underlying technology and the IoT components that can be leveraged to enable a healthcare system to deal with disease outbreaks already exist; however, they are fragmented and not yet connected. Therefore, the system needs to be able to build up its infrastructure quickly to connect the components of data collection, processing, and storage, so that the system can scale and expand for disease tracking, preventive quarantine, and the in-patient care of the infected.