Medical

The technology of COVID-19: shifts in healthcare

20th November 2020
Alex Lynn

Since its emergence at the end of 2019, the COVID-19 virus has had an unprecedented impact on people and economies the world over. At IDTechEx, we cover emerging technologies and industry trends, and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a direct or indirect impact on all of them. In this article, we will describe some of the key roles that these technologies have played in 2020.

Cases of COVID-19 first emerged in China in the latter parts of 2019. China took significant early measures, locking down entire cities and regions to halt the spread of the virus. Thanks to scientists who rapidly sequenced and published the genetic code of the virus, efforts were made to develop diagnostic tests to detect the virus in order to correctly diagnose patients, enact measures such as isolation and quarantine, and manage their treatment accordingly.

These early tests worked by recognising specific sequences in the viral DNA and amplifying them to a level sufficient for detection. For more information, please refer to the IDTechEx reports ‘COVID-19 Diagnostics’ and ‘Molecular Diagnostics 2020-2030’.

With results needed at an unprecedented scale in a limited time, other diagnostic approaches were explored to quickly diagnose COVID-19 patients. The lungs of patients with COVID-19 have certain visual hallmarks such as ground glass opacities and areas of increased density, both of which can be detected using CT and x-ray imaging.

To further speed up this process, companies developing artificial intelligence solutions for the detection of respiratory diseases quickly tailored their software to differentiate COVID-19 from other respiratory infections, decreasing image analysis time to the matter of seconds.

Despite efforts to slow the global spread of the virus, regional outbreaks outside of China began to appear. Soon, territories around the world were forced to also impose national and regional ‘lockdowns’, with populations told to stay at home to mitigate the spread of the virus.

In order to prepare for the oncoming surge in COVID-19 patients and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between patients in healthcare settings, healthcare systems around the world halted provision of ‘non-urgent’ doctor visits, which extends to everything from cardiac patients to cancer treatments.

This, combined with the public's concern and confusion around COVID-19 diagnosis, caused a huge increase in demand for digital health services. Doctors around the world quickly switched to delivering care through digital channels such as video links and apps. IDTechEx's report ‘Digital Health & Artificial Intelligence 2020: Trends, Opportunities, and Outlook’ includes coverage of telehealth and telemedicine among others.

Digital health solutions were also in high demand on the COVID-19 front line. Whilst huge new volumes of personal protective equipment were produced and distributed, digital solutions also had an increasing part to play here. Remote patient monitoring devices were deployed to monitor patient vital signs from a distance, allowing for a significant reduction in close contact between patients and healthcare workers.

Solutions for this have been developed over the past five to ten years and many were far from widespread use, but saw a level of uptake in just a few months that would require several years of work and tens of millions of dollars in investment.

The impact from these mitigation techniques has been significant both in terms of acute trends related to many of these product areas, but also in the longer-term mindset and outlook for many sectors. However, the attention of the world quickly turned to safe reopening of services post-lockdown.

For the public trying to live normal lives, health awareness has never been higher. Over the past decade of covering wearables, IDTechEx had been tracking an increasing adoption of healthcare-related sensors into traditionally ‘consumer’ smartwatches and other consumer electronic devices. This trend has further accelerated in 2020, where emerging sensors such as those for SpO2 and temperature are being tested as means of monitoring early symptoms of COVID-19.

Wearables have also been explored by countries as a means of contact tracing and safe reopening. Of course, maintaining good cardiovascular health remains one of the best ways to mitigate the worst of COVID-19 symptoms, and whilst this is not an acute solution in the short term, there has been a clear movement towards general health and wellness, including the personal electronic devices which help to promote this.

As we look forward to 2021 and post-COVID-19, it is almost impossible to imagine a resolution without a vaccine. Over 2020, scientists have been working at breakneck speed to develop a safe and effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 and have made significant progress by the end of the year. Several of the leading candidates leverage a new vaccine technology, based on synthetically produced mRNA. This has been a revolutionary technology that has accelerated vaccine development, and the ongoing clinical trials in COVID-19 suggest they will have a large role to play in the future beyond the current pandemic.

2020 has been a historic year for many reasons, but throughout the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, technology solutions have time and again come to the fore as critical parts of the global response.

Looking into the future, the progress of these technologies over time will be vital to moving on from the disruption, and in improving the ways in which our societies and systems deal with similar challenges in the future. The team of analysts at IDTechEx work to characterise and evaluate technology developments today to understand the impact they will have in the future.

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