How to leverage digital technologies during healthcare pandemics

Digital technologies and data tools have allowed countries and economies to make accurate and timely decisions for preventing, detecting, and responding to outbreaks writes Deepak Bhatt.


COVID- 19 is a global health crisis that is touching new milestones every day. It has been declared a pandemic. The disastrous consequences of the epidemic are reaching a critical phase now. It is high time that all public health systems should swing into action. Also, act together to prevent the growth of this pandemic. The emphasis of all bodies should be on the prevention or mitigation of the disease and its containment. It also will have a high economic impact, signs of which are already visible. Many businesses are already reeling under pressure from this disastrous time. The lessons should be learned from an unfolding crisis so that we are well equipped and ready for any future risks.

Digital Technology Is the Need Of The Hour: This is the time when we need crucial resources to compile accurate information. This helps to assess disease burdens and support prevention of diseases. This would also track of new clusters of emerging outbreaks. All these techniques will support the prevention and control measures in the scenario of epidemic response. A major chunk of world economies has transitioned to digital information systems from the traditional systems. This has helped in data collection and other measures. 

The backbone of the global health and security infrastructure are digital technologies and data tools. It has allowed countries and economies to make accurate and timely decisions for preventing, detecting, and responding to outbreaks. When optimised, the convergence of digital technologies and new data models with health systems, also known as “digital health,". This can help to ensure the necessary data and information are available in the right place, at the right time, and to the right people.

Over the last five years, the U.S. government has made several smart investments in a variety of digital tools and approaches. It has worked to strengthen the capacity of local partners to use these tools. While clear successes have resulted from these initial investments, significant challenges remain:

  • Many health information systems are soloed and capture duplicate data. Putting significant strain on health workers who collect, manage and use this information.
  • Health information systems are not always interoperable. They cannot always “talk” to one another—which hinders evidence-based decision-making.
  • The capacity of stakeholders to design, manage, and support digital health systems, as well as use data, is critically needed in many LMICs.
  • Many countries lack the necessary governance structures, policies, and coherent national plans to support the use of data to inform decisions and actions in epidemic response.
  • The U.S. government has not sufficiently leveraged the potential of the U.S. technology sector to advance digital health and global health security goals.

Lessons From Previous Global Epidemics: Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the most global outbreak was of that of the Ebola virus. The investigations on the outbreak gave many important lessons to everyone about the preparation and control of epidemics. This particular epidemic had given a wake-up call to the government and administration to plan for the coming outbreaks like COVID-19 that is much bigger in scale than any previous global epidemic.

Technology is a major sector that will impact the monitoring and control of future epidemics throughout the world. It will be a significant player in all future outbreaks. The innovation in technologies like mobile communication, computing, and broadband internet are all bringing in their elements to create innovative approaches for various responses in case of a pandemic. Technology has always assisted in the fight against epidemics. The Ebola outbreak was a major turning point in how we can use technology at such a crucial time to save lives.

If we can successfully warn, educate and empower people through technology then the impact of the epidemic will be reduced significantly. 

Here Are The Crucial Areas Where Technology Can Be Used To Fight Any Outbreak In The Future:

1) Messaging

  • During an outbreak, it is vital to keep the messaging to the local population clean and direct. This ensures that they are informed about the situation. They are reminded to take the necessary precautions.
  • It is vital to keep the information clear and to the point. For example; the hazards of the disease and ways to prevent its contraction.
  • Digitisation can help in spreading messages across when faced with such a pandemic. For instance; during the Ebola outbreak, the government in conjunction with a telecom service provider more than a million text messages to inform their population of the ways to prevent Ebola. Such programs use available technology and help to reach the population quickly with up-to-date information. The information can also be updated it the hazards evolve. 
  • Such tools help to reach a disparate population and create awareness about the issues of these diseases. Technology is now available everywhere just like phones and it is a great means to spread information.

2) Training the Frontline Workers

  • Digitisation and advances in technology can also help to train health workers in the field through mobile computing. They can deliver benefits such as standardised learning and new updates can be incorporated as new procedures get validated.
  • Potentially problematic training which is not tested widely disseminated can be avoided through technology. Established communications links and training material helps to be a tailor and test the modules with the health workers.
  • These tools help to focus efforts on training the existing staff, local population, and health workers. This enables them to treat themselves after emergency support is ended. The knock-on effect on medical infrastructure in the region can be avoided and rural areas can be kept in the loop with the correct advice and treatment.

3) Connectivity

  • One of the major advantages of digitisation is the growth in connectivity especially in countries like Africa. If connectivity is improved then it facilitates many technological advances.
  • Advances in digital health have improved the health infrastructure in the rural belts of the world. The regional economies have been strengthened which has further improved the health infrastructure of the world.
  • Communicating during an epidemic is critical as it ensures that we curb the spread of the virus early on and further our attempts to contain the spread by educating the population. 
  • To stabilise a communications network in any region, connectivity is the key and it impacts any future epidemic. These solutions add a legacy to the beneficiary hospitals and connectivity improves the capability of such health facilities. In harsh environments, many services like telemedicine can be made available to populations like a refugee and tribal zones. If these technologies are utilised in situ then remote areas can also be reached for any health services especially in case of an outbreak.
  • If we use traditional means to provide augmented technology, it gets cheaper as they are more viable. Technologies like Wi-Fi and 3G can’t be managed everywhere. The traditional solution is the satellite-based technologies and solutions and they can be used almost everywhere. Many regions develop and deploy mobile internet capability in cases of limited power supplies to stay connected.

4) Real-time monitoring

  • Innovative solutions should be deployed to check any outbreak. Epi-info VHF and EVDNet have been used in the past to assist in cases of outbreaks. This is an area that has seen real innovation in mobile capabilities and the approaches have become further viable with an increase in penetration of mobile.
  • Mobile users provide valuable data. Using technology like mobile phone towers helps in contact tracing or tracking users close to known cases of the virus. Many initiatives are now being tried to allow staff to enter the patients’ details electronically. At a medical facility, providing a clear picture of the scale of the outbreak is vital. The technologies help to leverage communication capabilities like linking of clinics together. And, also tracking of these details centrally. The data obtained through these tools can be analysed and reported. 
  • Medical trials help to understand the potential usage of drugs and technology. If the results are promising then we can use them for further evaluations. All this needs monitoring and any epidemic can’t be controlled otherwise. We should continue pursuing technical evaluations which help to find out the tools that can be used effectively in the future. 
  • Technology can become a force multiplier and it can be leveraged to help in the detection and treatment of new clusters. It is vital to keep pushing with these evaluations and the most successful technology will help in averting any widespread casualties.

If we learn to divert technology towards healthcare infrastructure successfully, then we can always hope to conquer pandemics like COVID- 19. This is what most countries are heading towards.

Deepak Bhatt is heading communication, media relations, advertising and digital marketing for Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA)

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