Pause and imagine: A system prepared for COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken both publicly and privately funded healthcare systems globally, raising the question of whether a healthcare system driven by artificial intelligence (AI) could have better positioned Canada to navigate this uncharted territory.
Imagine an intelligent healthcare system, one that is proactive, responsive and based on a foundation of innovation that ebbs and flows with the demands of its population. What if we had a system in which electronic medical records seamlessly speak to one another, where clinicians can see patients’ health histories regardless of location, thereby promoting the delivery of prompt quality and patient centered care? Examples from Estonia and Finland present national Electronic Medical Record models that provide a glimpse into infrastructure that promotes enhanced continuity of care.
With AI already a part of our daily lives, there is an opportunity for public health to integrate AI into its daily work for rapid infectious disease identification and vaccine development. Bluedot, a Toronto based AI company, was the first to identify COVID-19, nine days before the World Health Organization released its statement. A number of companies have begun exploring the use of AI to hasten and enhance the drug-development process, including in the development of vaccines and to assist researchers in reviewing tens of thousands of relevant research papers at an extraordinary pace. Other notable applications of AI in healthcare include personalizing and tailoring mental health treatment to patients, as demonstrated by Montreal-based start-up Aifred Health, and to improve the detection and diagnosis of diseases through an AI-powered medical imaging platform, as showcased by San Francisco-based start-up Arterys. To support the pandemic response, Arterys has opened its platform to developers working on medical-imaging AI models related to COVID-19 and is working with researchers and clinicians globally to develop more tools to fight the pandemic.
But go further and imagine a system where Robotics, Chatbots and Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) are consistently explored and rapidly integrated into practice, thereby allowing the use of these technologies to actively diagnose, monitor and treat diseases remotely. Given the importance of social distancing in curbing COVID-19, such technologies could significantly reduce the risk of infection for clinicians. An editorial in Science Robotics discusses how “robots have the potential to be deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food and measuring vital signs.” Additionally, RPM and Chatbots can be used for symptom escalation at a distance while freeing limited resources to treat the most critical cases.
Pausing to consider ways in which these technologies and others can be consistently and rapidly embedded into mainstream healthcare practice promotes thinking toward an ideal future state. Creating a more sustainable system involves making intentional investments in the healthcare system while ensuring balance between investments and potential benefits. This will require a long-term view as appropriate and well-designed upfront investments will have significant downstream effects in years to come.
Embracing opportunities for change and capitalizing on moments that call for rapid implementation is one way we have been forced to adapt. This sense of urgency should be applied to initiating and promoting a culture that forces us to question the status quo in the use of technology, processes, policies, partnerships and service delivery models; a culture that welcomes innovation but does not always rely on new technology and instead listens to new waves of thoughts to surpass current boundaries. Along the same line, it is important to ensure that policies and procedures keep pace with the rapidly evolving landscape to allow innovative practices and technologies to be safely trialed and integrated into the system.
Thousands of years ago Hippocrates said, “It is far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has” and this still holds true today. It is paramount that a key focus of the system in repositioning itself is to consistently and intentionally live and breathe the principle of patient-centered care. It is essential that this is the primary driving force and the heartbeat of the healthcare system to create truly sustainable, equitable and quality care.
While the COVID-19 pandemic presents a formative moment not just for the Canadian health system but for healthcare across the world, let’s pause and imagine where we go next and how we can come together and collaborate toward common goals for the health and wellbeing of the population.