Roundup: Tech's role in tracking, testing, treating COVID-19

[Updated April 2] As the cases of COVID-19, increase, we are seeing a rise in digital epidemiology tools, chatbot helpers, EHR guidance tools and rapid response test kits.
By HIMSS Media
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HealthMap's tracking tool. 

With the incidence of new COVID-19 cases growing by the day, healthcare stakeholders are continuing to search for tools and medications to help stem the tide. 

We have seen the digital health community release a slew of new tools aiming to monitor the spread of the disease and facilitate better treatment. And it sounds as if there's still more to come, as just this morning CNBC reported that tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google were sitting down with the World Health Organization to talk about their role in combating the spread of disease, as well as misinformation. 

As of this morning there were close to 900,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus, according to WHO. The medical community has rushed to search for solutions to the spread of the disease with a big push for vaccine and medicine research. 

Tech has a history of helping the medical industry track and treat viruses. Among more recent examples is flu tracking. In 2018 the US experienced a particularly severe flu season. During this time aggregated user data collected through Kinsa’s smart connected thermometers indicated illness spikes across the country.

Even more recently, a Scripps Research Translational Institute study published in The Lancet Digital Health found that resting-heart-rate and sleep-duration data collected from Fitbit devices could help inform timely and accurate models of population-level influenza trends.

In terms of COVID-19, we are seeing another rise in digital epidemiology tools, chatbot helpers, EHR guidance tools and rapid-response test kits. 

Read on for a list of how health organizations, governments and digital health vendors are using technology to tackle the COVID-19 crisis: 

Organizing services. Health Catalyst has launched a COVID-19 Response tool that includes seven different services. The new feature will be available to Health Catalyst customers, but it is opening up a module focused on patient safety to all healthcare organizations. The seven new services include a patient and staff tracker, public health surveillance, staff-augmentation support, COVID-19 registry, COVID-19 dashboard, a capacity-planning tool and a financial-impact and analysis resource.

“Our growing suite of COVID-19 Solutions capabilities includes identifying the location of patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 as well as other patient, clinician and staff interactions and exposures to allow for infectious disease surveillance and automated monitoring for ‘hot-spots’ using local geo-mapping and more,” Holly Rimmasch, Chief Clinical Officer at Health Catalyst, said in a statement. “Data-informed surveillance and containment strategies can enhance COVID-19 detection, reduce transmission and help our nation’s hospitals and healthcare systems manage capacity and supplies to limit risk of system-overwhelm and improve patient, caregiver and community outcomes.”


 Chatbot advice. Digital-payment company Flywire and AI-powered chatbot Ivy.ai are joining forces on a new COVID-19 chatbot that will let patients tap into information about the virus. The new tool is customizable for healthcare providers and can help assess COVID-19 risk in patients.

“The coronavirus pandemic is putting enormous strain on healthcare providers who are on the front line of treating and containing the virus,” said John Talaga, EVP and GM of Flywire’s healthcare division. “In addition to actively treating patients, doctors and nurses are overrun with calls from individuals about potential coronavirus symptoms. Flywire’s chatbot service is designed to help healthcare providers keep up with the high volume of requests they’re seeing. It’s one little way we can help our healthcare clients manage how they engage and support their patient population at this critical time.”


Resource hub. Virgin Pulse is launching a COVID-19 Hub that will include resources for helping its users deal with the pandemic. Users can tap into webinars, blog posts and links about staying healthy during this time. The hub’s curated content is centered on stress management, staying active, maintaining productivity, eating health and sleeping well.

“The mental, physical and financial toll COVID-19 is taking on employers, employees, families and the world at large cannot be understated,” Dave Osborne, CEO of Virgin Pulse, said in a statement. “Virgin Pulse, together with our partners, recognize that we must bring our collective resources to bear to help as many people as we can, as quickly as we can, and at the most critical time of their adjustment to this new world.”


Dashboard assessment. athenahealth is adding two new dashboards to address the coronavirus. The first is one for high-risk populations. It can pinpoint areas with high-risk patients and let provider organizations know ahead of time. The second is a lab-testing dashboard that lets providers see a map of where tests are being ordered by other healthcare workers on the athenahealth network. The idea is to help clinicians track trends.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to grow across the country, it is critically important that our nation’s leaders have current information to inform decisions on where to deploy hospital resources and bolster clinical infrastructure,” Bob Segert, chairman and CEO of athenahealth, said in a statement. “Our COVID-19 dashboards enable users to track and predict which area hospitals may need more support based on the number of tests being performed and the number of people at risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19. By providing this data from our connected network, we aim to help providers on the frontlines battling the coronavirus and potentially slow the number of fatalities from this pandemic.”


Apple health check. Apple launched a COVID-19 website and corresponding app. The new site, which serves as both a screening tool and information platform, was born out of a collaboration with Apple, the CDC, the White House Coronavirus Task Force and FEMA. Users are able to go onto the site and answer a list of questions including symptoms, risk factors and exposure. At the end of the survey users are given a directive about possible next steps. 


Siri give me guidance. In other Apple news, Siri has been updated to provide symptom-based guidance and, in some cases, telehealth-app download links to users seeking COVID-19 information from the virtual assistant.

Now, when users ask Siri a question along the lines of "How do I know whether I have coronavirus?" or "I think I have coronavirus," the tool initiates a new conversation tree to determine the user's current symptoms. The user responds to each of these voice and text prompts with "yes," "no" or "not sure."


Wearable studies. Two major wearable studies  kicked off this week. The first is the DETECT (Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early Control & Treatment) Study, headed by the Scripps Research Translational Institute. It combines heart-rate, activity and sleep data collected through a range of devices – such as Fitbits, Apple Watches, Garmins, Oura Rings or any others that can share data with Google Fit or Apple HealthKit – and pairs it with participant-submitted symptom reports.

The second is the UC San Francisco's TemPredict Study. This effort is inviting Oura Ring users to release their device-collected physiological data and complete daily surveys on their condition. It, too, looks to "identify patterns that could predict onset, progression, and recovery in future cases of COVID-19.


Birth control app turns to coronavirus. Birth control app Natural Cycles is now looking to address the coronavirus crisis with a new symptom tracker. Users of the app can enter their symptoms and then share them with their healthcare provider. The app allows users to also enter a positive or negative coronavirus test. 

“The last few weeks we have been seeing changes in how our users use the app as the situation in the world is rapidly changing due to the new coronavirus,” Natural Cycles co-founder and CEO Elina Berglund, said in a statement. “We asked ourselves how we can better help our users, as well as the medical community, and immediately dedicated internal resources to release our COVID-19 symptom trackers functionality to users everywhere on an expedited timeline.”


Making a list. Chicago-based Intelligent Medical Objects is offering its customers two free COVID-19 Sets, designed to help with clinicians' workflow and management, specifically pertaining to the virus. The sets consists of a list of codes and patient groupings by issue or disease. The new addition, is pitched as a way to help providers document, track and analyze response to patient care. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis for society. By providing up to the minute, clinically-accurate and specific terminology, mapped to the rapidly changing international standard codes, IMO is ensuring that governments and institutions have access to the right information as quickly as possible to fight the virus,” Dr. Andrew S. Kanter, chief medical officer at IMO, said in a statement. “Leveraging specific value sets, we speed the process of grouping together patients who have various forms of COVID-19 disease and those who are suspected of or exposed to the disease.”


Daily check. With a focus on the elderly population, My Day for Seniors on Alexa will now include COVID-19 screenings coming in the form of daily questionnaires. The system is able to communicate a possible case of COVID-10 back to a designated caregiver or family member. 

“Now more than ever, advanced technology has the opportunity to provide support and engagement for people who would have been hard to reach even 5 years ago," Dr. Randall Williams, founder of My Day for Seniors, said in a statement. "My Day for Seniors is just one way we can help flatten the curve while providing support to seniors and peace of mind to loved ones.” 


Education focus. Patient engagement tool GetWellNetwork is adding free coronavirus management modules for health systems and provider organizations. The two modules focus on screening and testing, self-monitoring, self-quarantining, and symptoms monitoring. The company pitches these modules as a way to educate patients and share information with the broader community.


Speedy testing. Everlywell announced that it is working to develop a take-home coronavirus test that will be available soon. The company said it plans to offer the test at cost, with no profit to the company. The test will allow users to collect samples at home and then ship their sample to a lab. 

The test results will then be available within 3 to 5 days online. The home test kit will include an overnight delivery label, a telemedicine consultation for those with positive results and the disease-sample collecting kit. 


Test, assess. Direct-to-consumer virtual health company Ro is offering free COVID-19 triage telehealth assessment. After a user has completed the online assessment, Ro will connect them with a provider if it’s deemed appropriate. The follow-up may be done through phone, or by text or video chat. 

In a Medium post the company’s CEO, Zachariah Reitano, said that the tool had been developed using guidelines from infectious-disease specialists, as well as those from the CDC and World Health Organization. Reitano said the new effort was created in part to help unburden hospitals and advise symptomatic patients about next steps.  


Short term tele-fix. MeMD is launching a short-term telehealth business to address the needs of coronavirus patients. Companies can now purchase a 90-day virtual health package called Total Telehealth-Rapid Response. 

“With telehealth, we can stem the flow of patients to crowded ERs, mitigate the spread of the virus and still ensure that people get the care they need,” said Bill Goodwin, CEO of MeMD. “Short-term telehealth options make it possible for businesses to navigate a very uncertain time.”


Alexa I need some advice. Voice-powered health tech company Orbita launched a new coronavirus-focused virtual assistant. The free tool is able to be integrated into other platforms, including scheduling and telemedicine applications. It comes equipped with a conversational question-and-answer format and screen tools based on CDC formats. Organizations also have the ability to integrate their custom content into the tech. 

"We asked ourselves in recent weeks, 'What can we do to make a difference?,' and we quickly arrived at a logical decision for our company," Orbita CEO Bill Rogers said in a statement. "We're providing this COVID-19-specific chatbot free of charge to bring immediate support to organizations now scrambling to educate the public, provide rapid triage, and reduce infection risk, all within constraints of limited resources and rapidly changing circumstances."


One for providers, one for community. MobileSmith launched two COVID-19-focused new apps, one for staff members and one for community members. The staff-member app was designed to help health workers communicate. It also allows users to manage staff deployment, and provides video references. 

The community app helps community responders access virtual or telehealth assessments and screening tools. It also provides information about COVID19. 


Blood testing. Israeli blood-testing startup Sight Diagnostics announced that it is teaming up with Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv in order to provide 

Sight’s OLO blood analyer will provide rapid complete blood count (CBC) results in a dedicated lab to process samples of COVID-19 patients who are being monitored and treated in a separate field hospital. 


Baby advice. Prenatal-focused startup Babyscripts is teaming up with George Washington Medical Faculty Associates in order to answer expecting moms' specific COVID-19 questions. The team came up with a list of resources and recommendations relating to the virus that allowed Babyscripts app-users to tap into reference tools, such as FAQs. Babyscripts also announced that it would be launching a campaign for its health systems, which would allow providers to customize the COVID-19 information. 

“At times of crisis like this, access to accurate information is key for reducing anxiety and panic,” Juan Pablo Segura, president and cofounder of Babyscripts, said in a statement. “There’s a lot of conflicting information floating around on the internet, and pregnant women are especially vulnerable because they’re in a unique situation that complicates their normal responses to things like virus protection. Mobile health gives us the critical ability to communicate to these patients in real time and answer their questions.”


ALERT. OptimizeRx has integrated COVID-19 alerts into its health information network on EHRs. The system connects providers to CDC-specific information. The company is pitching this as a way to monitor the spread of the disease. 

“As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to grow daily, it is vital that providers have the most up-to-date information on the virus when treating patients,” William Febbo, OptimizeRx’s CEO, said in a statement. “Timely CDC messages within the OptimizeRx digital health platform at the point of care raises awareness at a critical time and location where health decisions are being made.”


Mapping the structure. Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind has released structural predictions for “understudied proteins” that are linked to COVID-19.  Using the latest version of its AlphaFold system, an AI-enabled deep learning system, the company has been able to generate and release its findings. 

“We emphasise that these structure predictions have not been experimentally verified, but hope they may contribute to the scientific community’s interrogation of how the virus functions, and serve as a hypothesis-generation platform for future experimental work in developing therapeutics,” the AlphaFold team wrote in a statement. 

The statement went on to explain that understanding a protein’s structure is important for understanding its function. However, historically it takes months to acquire the proper data to come up with the structure, which is where computation models come into play. 


Evaluate, educate. Healthcare providers will be able to tap into Bright.md’s new COVID-19 screening and evaluation tool. Patients can use the tool to get advice about where to go if they are presenting with COVID-19 symptoms. The tool is pitched as a way for providers to keep patients away from busy emergency rooms. It can be integrated into Bright.md’s virtual-care platform, the SmartExam. 

"The COVID-19 scare will likely cause an overwhelming demand for hospital facilities and clinical resources, making it difficult to treat patients who need care the most," Dr. Ray Costantini, CEO and cofounder of Bright.md, said in a statement. "Crowded emergency departments also raise the risk of spreading viruses  whether it's COVID-19 or the common flu  to sick people at the facility, as well as to the larger community."


Take the survey. Georgian startup Rimidi announced that it is rolling out a new patient-reported outcome survey to help screen and track the spread of COVID-19. The new tool will integrate with EHRs, and its results can be analyzed by clinicians. The survey responses are compared to CDC guidelines about risk. 

“One of the greatest challenges in China and across other countries that faced early COVID-19 outbreaks has been hospital-based transmission,” Dr. Lucienne Ide, founder of Rimidi, said in a statement. “With the app, we can help keep potentially infectious individuals from exposing other patients or staff in the healthcare system in waiting rooms, emergency rooms, or triage before they are identified and separated.”


Dealing with quarantine. As Israel’s Sheba Medical Center prepared to take custody of the 12 Israeli passengers onboard the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that was quarantined in Japan for several weeks because of the COVID-19 coronavirus, it worked with at least three vendors to bring telemedicine care to these patients. 

Longtime remote-monitoring company Datos, whose platform the center used to develop a monitoring program and treatment protocols, and Tyto Care, a new partner who will provide the devices and a consumer-friendly user experience, will come together so patients conduct exams without medical staff present. 

A third solution, from recent Teladoc acquisition InTouch Health, is a robotic telemedicine cart called Vici that is equipped with a camera, screen and medical equipment that can be sent into a quarantined patient area and controlled remotely by a doctor or nurse.


Diagnostic discoveries. Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center (SPHCC) and Yitu Healthcare, a Shanghai-based AI startup, officially launched the Intelligent Evaluation System of Chest CT for COVID-19. 

The system enables intelligent diagnosis and quantitative evaluation of CT images of COVID-19 through image algorithms. It grades the severity of various pneumonia diseases of local lesions, diffuse lesions and whole-lung involvement. In addition, it accurately quantifies the cumulative pneumonia load of the disease through quantitative and omics analysis of key image features such as the morphology, range and density of the lesion. 


Tracking the progression. Dr. Alex Liu, founder of the data science company RMDS Labs, is teaming up with researchers at Wuhan University to develop a new way of using AI and machine-learning programs to track the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The platform will also be looking at the future implications that the virus could have on the economy. 


Accessing guidelines. MayaMD.AI released a tool that helps people who were exposed or potentially exposed to the coronavirus figure out their best course of action. It includes standardized guidelines that can be adjusted based on emerging best practices. The company noted that this tool could also be used for clinicians, healthcare workers, public workers and airline crews. 


Assessing during intake. Carbon Health, a virtual and in-person primary-care network, launched a new integration into its workflow platform designed to help pinpoint the patients at risk for COVID-19. During the intake process, the system will prompt providers to ask questions surrounding travel history and symptoms.


Checking for contamination. The Chinese government released a new app intended to help citizens check whether they came into contact with the virus. App users are asked to register a phone number, name and ID number in order to see if they were in contact with someone infected, according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, which first reported the story. 

Users are able to get the app by scanning a QR code through platforms like WeChat, Alipay and QQ. The app will then give them information on whether they came into “close contact” with the disease, which the government defines as being in close proximity with no protection to someone who has a confirmed or suspected case.


Tracking the spread. A team from Johns Hopkin’s Center for System Science and Engineering released a new live dashboard that integrates information from the WHO and CDC to track the virus in real time. The dashboard includes information about cases by region and country, as well as the deaths. The information is displayed in a map and in corresponding charts.


Screening and supporting. InterSystems released a functionality allowing users of the latest editions of TrakCare to screen and support patients with COVID-19, as the fight against the spread of the outbreak intensifies.

The company said customers in China, the UK, the United Arab Emirates and other countries had already started using it.

The functionality is based on guidance from WHO and links to the Wuhan Coronavirus Global Cases app from the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering in the US.


Partnering on solutions. Boston-based chatbot Buoy Health and digital epidemiology tool HealthMap have each been working on their own tools, but have come together in a data-sharing collaboration.

HealthMap has been focused on tracking the novel coronavirus from the onset, and has experience tracking the spread of diseases. 

“There is all this information online and we can capture events ahead [of time using] what might be reported through these networks, social media, chat rooms … [Our] work is focused initially on early signs of a disease,” John Brownstein, who heads up HealthMap, told MobiHealthNews. “That is what we did with the coronavirus and found some signs on local news, chat rooms. ... We’ve been working with an international team to do some crowdsourcing of identification of keywords and metadata.”

Meanwhile, Buoy has a new feature providing patients with information about the condition. When people are using Buoy’s symptom tracker, it may also be listed as a possible condition for certain patients — based on travel history and other factors. 

Buoy and HealthMap are sharing information coming into each platform to help assist patients at home as well as public health officials. 

“Because we have a good sense of underlying risk we can push that information to Buoy, and that can help them fine tune their algorithm and fine tune their decision support tools,” Brownstein said. “But the reverse is also true  they are collecting symptom data from consumers that can point to signals for disease contamination.”


Giving guidance. At the beginning of February, Phreesia, a digital health company that focuses on the patient check-in space, launched a new screening module for its clients at no additional costs. The new tool is based on the CDC's guidelines and updates regularly based on these parameters. 


Drones for surveillance. Bloomberg News reported that the Chinese government is using drones to ensure that its citizens are following public health safety guidelines. The drones, which come with loudspeaker capabilities, will zero in on individuals who aren’t following the recommendations, and an operator will give them instructions, such as, “go inside” or “put on a mask.”

 The videos, which were posted by Global Times, a publication owned by the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper, show the drones getting personal and calling out a person’s clothing or appearance in order to get their attention and then correct their behavior. 


Curbing contamination. CNN reported that medical teams tapped robots to care for the first person diagnosed with the virus in the US. The robot was used to take vitals and communicate with the medical team outside of the isolation area. The CNN report specifies that the robot was used as a means of preventing the virus from being transmitted to the medical staff. 


Check the guidance. Previously, athenahealth added a new update to its cloud-based software aimed at helping its clients screen and test their patients for COVID-2019. 

As part of this effort, the company has implemented new diagnostic-testing orders and screening questions across its network of ambulatory and hospital customers.

"We pushed these updates directly into the workflows of 130,000 providers overnight  no downloads or installation required, and sincerely hope that our ability to respond quickly and provide the right resources will help our customers in their efforts to limit the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus," athenahealth CEO Bob Segert said in a statement.

Among the new tools quickly developed and deployed: a set of new travel-related screening questions that appear within athenaClinicals workflows.


Testing kit. In late January Singapore-based Veredus Laboratories, a provider of innovative molecular diagnostic solutions, recently announced the development of VereCoV detection kit, a portable Lab-on-Chip application capable of detecting the Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and COVID-2019 in a single test.

The VereCoV detection Kit is based on the VereChip technology, a Lab-on-Chip platform integrating two powerful molecular biological applications, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and microarray, that will be able to identify and differentiate MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and COVID-2019 with high specificity and sensitivity.


Under development. A group of researchers led by Assistant Professor Shao Huilin at the Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (iHealthtech), located at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is working on the development of a rapid COVID-19 detection kit based on the enVision technology platform, which they invented in 2018.

Traditional polymerase chain reaction-based (PCR) coronavirus detection kits take about a day to produce results, while the latest lab-on-chip detection kit currently in development by Veredus Laboratories can produce results in about two hours. enVision (enzyme-assisted nanocomplexes for visual identification of nucleic acids) can be designed to detect a wide range of diseases – from emerging infectious diseases (e.g. Zika and Ebola) and high-prevalence infections (e.g. hepatitis, dengue and malaria) to various types of cancers and genetic diseases. enVision takes between 30 minutes to one hour to detect the presence of diseases. 


Curbing fake news. Facebook pledged to remove false claims and conspiracy theories about the disease posted on its social media platforms. 

In a recent blog post, the company announced that it is working with a network of third-party fact-checkers to review information. If a piece of information is rated as false, the company pledges to limit its spread on Facebook and Instagram. 

Facebook also noted that it would be providing aggregated and anonymized mobility data and population-density models to help researchers at Harvard and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan create their forecasting modes. 


Fever check. In the midst of the COVID-19 spread, Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), the national HIT agency in Singapore, has partnered with local healthcare AI startup KroniKare to pilot iThermo – an AI-powered temperature-screening solution that screens and identifies those having or showing symptoms of fever. iThermo is currently being piloted at IHiS headquarters in Serangoon North and St. Andrews Community Hospital (SACH) from February 10 onwards respectively in "live" operational environments.


Reimbursement for tests. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced a new Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System code that will enable providers to bill the lab test for COVID-19. The code allows labs to bill for the specific test instead of using an unspecified code.

The system will be able to accept the code on April 1 for dates of service on or after February 4. HCPCS is a standardized coding system that Medicare and other health insurers use to submit claims for services provided to patients.