In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, healthcare and technology innovators from across the world are stepping up their game to stem the effect of the disease – from rapidly implementing telehealth services to seeking ways to greatly increase testing to developing techniques for tracking the spread across communities.
But even with some of the world’s best minds working overtime, solutions won’t come easy. Since its outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, the virus has spread to more than 200 countries and territories, with over 2 million reported cases across the world to date; the United States has recorded more cases than anywhere else, with more than 760,000 confirmed cases and more than 40,000 deaths – and the numbers are still rising.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are currently 70 vaccines in development around the world, and researchers and clinicians are racing the clock to develop effective treatments. But until there’s a vaccine for the virus, or at least an effective treatment, physicians and leaders from all sectors of the healthcare industry are looking for ways to combat the rapid spread of the disease. And like in so many things in healthcare today, many are asking what role artificial intelligence can play in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Artificial intelligence – long an impactful technology in multiple industries – is experiencing rapid adoption across multiple sectors of the healthcare industry. What was once seen as having great potential is now making its way to real-world implementation. Regarding COVID-19, the industry is closely examining the ability of artificial intelligence to drive improvements in care through early detection of the virus, helping isolate those who have come in contact with the virus, protecting both patient and physician. it was BlueDot, a Toronto-based company that uses an artificial intelligence-driven algorithm to help governments protect their citizens, hospitals, and staff from infectious, contagious wide-spread illnesses, that sounded one of the earliest alarms about the novel coronavirus. BlueDot alerted its clients and advised them to avoid Wuhan – more than a week before WHO notified the public of the growing outbreak in China.
Healthcare organizations, too, have turned to artificial intelligence to help. Partners HealthCare, a not-for-profit system founded by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, leveraged artificial intelligence technology to develop a screening tool that rapidly identifies patients who may have symptoms of Covid-19. After connecting with Providence St. Joseph Health System in Seattle – one of the first U.S. hospitals to treat patients with COVID-19 – Partners HealthCare created the Partners Covid-19 Screener, which asks patients a series of questions through a chat interface so that patients experiencing COVID-19 symptoms can be appropriately and quickly triaged.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the important role artificial intelligence-powered solutions play in healthcare. Organizations like Partners HealthCare and Providence St. Joseph Health have been proactive in their use of artificial intelligence during this crisis. While there has been little question that artificial intelligence is a value add in healthcare, the industry is likely to see a paradigm shift in how artificial intelligence is viewed in light of its potential application to combat COVID-19.
The global and economic impact of COVID-19 has also spurred tech giants like Google to join the race to develop artificial intelligence-powered solutions that have the capability to detect and diagnose COVID-19 symptoms early. Google’s DeepMind recently published research on how it is using the latest version of AlphaFold, a deep learning system that uses large genomic datasets to predict protein structure associated with COVID-19. The model releases structure predictions of under-studied proteins associated with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. While the structure predictions of the model have not been experimentally verified, researchers at DeepMind are confident that the 3D models of proteins that AlphaFold generates are far more accurate than any that have come before and hope that the model, in its infancy, may contribute to the scientific community’s discovery of how the virus functions.
Healthcare organizations and tech companies aren’t alone in their fight for early detection of COVID-19. Many machine learning and artificial intelligence companies have joined the fight to build predictive artificial intelligence-powered tools to help healthcare professionals detect early warning signs of the virus. The tool built by BlueDot use artificial intelligence and machine learning to research and collect large amounts of data to efficiently predict the outbreak of viruses. The tool also helps researchers identify areas that should be no-travel zones because of the spread of the virus. BlueDot is the only organization that has thus far developed an artificial intelligence and machine learning tool that can successfully identify places where the virus may soon hit.
Artificial intelligence-powered robots have also joined the fight. With physicians treating patients on the frontlines, their risk for contracting the virus is extraordinarily high. With that high risk to physicians in mind, China has enlisted the help of artificial intelligence-powered robots. The robots can deliver medicine and food to infected patients, as well as change bed sheets and clean up medical rubbish — and most importantly, they’re able to clean and disinfect themselves. The adoption of robots in hospitals will aid in reducing the amount of exposure healthcare professionals have to the virus when treating patients. Robots are much faster than humans and can perform tasks at a quicker rate, allowing physicians to dedicate their time to more severe cases.
With the number of COVID-19 cases still increasing, and a vaccine some estimate to be a year to 18 months away, we must use the resources that are readily available to us to combat this virus and protect the essential workers that work every day to serve and protect the public.
While there is some question about the quality of data that is being documented through artificial intelligence technology, there is little debate that the benefits of the technology outweigh the concerns of using it. And although the healthcare industry has its challenges with managing large volumes of data, opportunities inherent in the implementation of a data lake, combined with the power of artificial intelligence, will benefit those organizations willing and able to invest in the solutions necessary to drive real-time analysis of data at this critical juncture.
It will be some time before we know how effective artificial intelligence was in fighting COVID-19. But there is no doubt that continued technological advancements and innovation will result from these uncertain times — and with those improvements, we can expect to see artificial intelligence technology playing a bigger role in fighting this crisis and whatever may be in store in the future.