COVID-19 highlights SAR’s need for a comprehensive digital health blueprint
This article appeared originally in the CHINADAILY on 30 March, 2022.
Author: Pamela Tin, Head of Healthcare and Social Development at Our Hong Kong Foundation
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In what is perhaps a silver lining in the cloud, the COVID-19 pandemic has created the most favorable conditions ever for the development of global digital health.
Many have attributed the successful containment of the pandemic in the Chinese mainland to the mainland’s strong grip on information technology. It was estimated that during Lunar New Year 2020, more than 6.7 million consultations were conducted online, an annual increase of 31 percent. Apart from telemedicine, China’s all-round utilization of mobile internet, big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence has been hailed for effective pandemic prediction, contact tracing, disease detection, information dissemination and drug distribution through innovative policies such as the internet hospital and health QR codes.
The National University Health System in Singapore has partnered with a local startup to develop and implement an AI bot that helps monitor COVID-19 home recovery cases. Stay-home patients will receive regular notifications asking for inputs of vital signs via messaging apps like WhatsApp. Related healthcare professionals will be notified of any abnormal reading of their patients and can quickly intervene via teleconsultations. Upon the app’s success in resolving outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories in 2020, the bot application is now used by various hospitals to monitor discharged chronic disease patients in communities.
These successful examples can answer many urgent needs in Hong Kong’s current fifth wave of the COVID-19 outbreak: Those who test positive and are stranded at home, those who queue at public hospitals for hours without receiving care, and those who call the government’s hotline day and night, but in vain.
Lack of comprehensive digital health strategy
Ample academic studies and country examples have clearly shown that the use of information and digital health technology during the pandemic has made significant contributions toward prioritizing healthcare resource distribution, and sustaining accessible and quality health services. As outlined by the World Health Organization in the “Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025”, however, a successful digital health implementation depends on a basket of factors. These include a strong governance structure that works toward an integrated strategy legally, financially and technologically, as well as good public digital literacy and accessibility to related infrastructures.
Given Hong Kong’s slow development in community-based primary care and stalled growth in digital health adoption before the pandemic, a responsive digital strategy in pandemic policies can at best be meticulously selective. Pain points of our healthcare service models should be identified in a timely manner and digital tools implemented in consideration of technical feasibility and public acceptance.
Prioritizing digital initiatives for maximum impact
In the past months, we have witnessed scattered attempts of our government digital solutions in the city’s battle against COVID-19, exemplified by means of information dissemination such as dashboards and interactive maps, and contact tracing mobile apps and wristbands. The latter, in particular, continues to be under scrutiny of citizens who are yet to establish trust with any data collection protocol.
Digital solutions are also essential for those requiring medical attention, particularly when all public hospitals are overloaded, necessitating thought to go into alternative services essential for ensuring a continuity of care not just for people in quarantine but also chronic-disease patients in need of regular medical checkups. During Hong Kong’s fifth wave of COVID-19 outbreak, non-governmental efforts include services from local telemedicine protagonists such as DrGo and DoctorNow, and more recently online medical platform iMeddy, which has offered free online services for confirmed COVID-19 patients, covering teleconsultation, drug delivery and all necessary referrals. Concurrently, the Hospital Authority has once again utilized telemedicine as a key tool for service provision outside of hospital settings, a key example being Chinese medicine practitioner consultations to COVID-19 patients in residential care homes for the elderly.
In a similar tone, with more than 700 elderly-care homes reporting confirmed cases in Hong Kong, another plausible strategy to deliver care and at the same time minimize contact is through the use of robots. Commonly in place in many Chinese mainland hospitals, robots are deployed to measure vital signs, supply food, and dispense medicine to their residents. A Hong Kong-based company, Hanson Robotics, has already created a lifelike nurse robot, “Grace”, who is not only able to fulfill the above tasks, but also socialize with elder patients and address mental needs. While the firm is hoping that mass production can help lower costs, sufficient governmental subsidy and facilitation could accelerate its launch in local and global markets.
The unprecedented severity of the current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic sends strong signals for the need for timely and responsive digital solutions to ease the numerous challenges of our public healthcare system. Thought will need to go into not just immediate stopgap solutions, but importantly, into the development of a comprehensive digital health blueprint for Hong Kong with integrated efforts from innovation technology and healthcare sectors. It is after all never too late to go high tech.