Since the December outbreak in China of the new strain of coronavirus, that causes the disease called COVID-19, a global pandemic has ensued. Health systems around the world, especially in European countries such as Italy and Spain, are suffering an unprecedented situation.
A lack of specific treatment in connection with the high rate of infection represents a huge challenge in all areas of society, but particularly for those in health services, the foot soldiers in the battle against the pandemic.
This situation has lead us to conduct a global analysis of our current social-health system. We must examine the mechanisms, and the human, logistical and technological resources we have at our disposal so we may overcome these circumstances in the future.
In this regard, the digitalization and automation of social and health processes are and will remain key in preventing, containing and reducing the risks of infection.
Challenges to the health system raised by the pandemic
▶ Lack of capacity in the number of ICU beds, emergency rooms and wards saturated with a high number of infected people
The infection curve is fundamental in combating the spread of the virus. Despite the fact that, according to the WHO the mortality rate for the virus is between 2% and 4%, in Spain this rate is much higher (reaching 7%). This leaves a high number of affected people, creating crowded hospitals that exceed their maximum capacity.
▶Lack of staff to attend to all patients
This uncontrolled increase in patients requires extra effort on the part of healthcare personnel, who are now outnumbered by the people affected. Furthermore, being on the front line of exposure, they are more susceptible to the virus, thus reducing the number of personnel available.
▶ Lack of protective materials used by professionals (masks, gowns, glasses, etc.)
▶ Lack of equipment and medication to properly treat those infected.
▶ Difficulty to determine the traceability of patients and health staff due to the high number of people affected
The current emergency situation means that traditional traceability protocols do not have enough capacity to analyse all cases and potential cross-contamination, either from patient contacts or other patients in the hospital and health staff.
▶ An escalation of procedures and requirements that demand much faster and seamless communication between medical professionals
The high number of patients affected by the pandemic, in combination with the existing regular medical treatments in hospitals (other patients with different pathologies, emergency operations, scheduled operations that cannot be postponed etc.), require a very efficient, fast and smooth communication of hospital processes in order to offer appropriate care.
The evolution towards the digitalization of health care
This unprecedented situation requires tools that allow for maximum control and organization.
In this regard, the strategy followed by both Spain and other countries suffering from the health crisis is called “suppression”. This means the creation of measures of isolation for the population with the aim of minimizing contact and, therefore, the spread of the virus.
For this strategy it is integral to restrain the pandemic, a situation in which digital surveillance can prove very useful.
Leading by example are countries such as China and South Korea, where different applications and data have been used in an attempt to control the movements of affected people, so that they may be aware of all the locations where the virus could have had contact with others.
Clearly, digitalization is a key instrument in combating this epidemic:
✔ Apps focused on data collection that allow:
→ Centralize information about the disease.
→ Centralize data entry in case of suspected infection (symptom logging).
→ Record people’s movements in the world (through smartphone location, payment for services, etc.)
✔ Big data and artificial intelligence: With all the information gathered, we can determine sources of infection and act on them.
By combining both approaches, it is possible to obtain an applied technology that allows to detect outbreaks and people affected by the virus, in order to trace the exposed contacts and to be able to adopt specific and localized isolation measures.
As we have previously mentioned, our socio-health system is the institution most affected by the pandemic, and not only because of saturation, but also because both its staff and patients (not only those affected by COVID-19) are constantly exposed to the virus.
There is a risk of cross-contamination we’ve divided into three particularly sensitive factors:
》 Patients with other pathologies that can be affected by the virus.
》 Contaminated equipment.
》 Healthcare staff who may become infected and infect other clinicians, patients and even their own families.
In this context, setting up a Real Time Location System may be essential to satisfy two fundamental concerns: to identify the existence of a possible outbreak, and to control it efficiently.
What are the benefits of an RTLS system?
✔ Identification and location of patients
Identify patients from the first moment they enter into the hospital with the ability to locate them in real time. Therefore, it is possible to keep a complete record of all the necessary information about every patient. Any clinician can identify the patient and know his/her information for every interaction maintained between them. This feature is always important, but in periods of saturation and potential contamination, becomes vital in order to keep patients, equipment and clinicians from being exposed.
✔ Patient and healthcare staff tracing
Being aware of the data related to a patient at any given time enables an evolution towards digital and real time traceability. That is, in the event that a patient tests positive for the virus, the staff will be able to know all of the areas in which the patient has been, and therefore which equipment requires disinfection, and even which staff members may need to carry out quarantine.
✔ Equipment location
Another important element is the equipment. When it becomes necessary, it is very important to always have the available equipment under control and to keep track of where it is so that it can be used when it is required as quickly as possible. In addition, the traceability of the patients combined with the location of the equipment will also allow us to know if the equipment has been in contact with at-risk patients and therefore if it requires disinfection prior to use.
✔ Fast and efficient communication of processes
A coordinated, fast and efficient system is vital in being able to correctly attend to all patients in this time. Anticipating the needs of patients and clinicians, as well as managing the flow of each process, helps to ensure that clinicians always have the necessary resources at their disposal, creating a seamless experience.
Recovery from a state of pandemic like the present one will be gradual and delicate. Therefore, it is essential to have all the tools that can contribute and improve the service that most directly combats the virus.