AI Talk: Post-pandemic prognostications

May 1, 2020 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

This week’s AI Talk…

As we weather the ravages of the current pandemic, we see several states slowly opening back up. What are the short-term and long-term implications of this opening up and what impact will the pandemic have on our economy, overall health, etc.? There are all sorts of implications we need to sort through, including short-term, long-term, positive and negative fallouts, policy implications and more. Here I am just focusing on a sliver: Changes related to tech.

Sentinel surveillance

Now, no one needs to be convinced that effective sentinel monitoring is needed now and in the future. The CDC always had a way to monitor the prevalence of diseases like flu, opioid abuse and other communicable diseases, through reporting required of ED providers and others. The brave new world of disease surveillance is going to be totally high tech. CBS 60 minutes covered a company called Blue Dot that was the first to raise the alarm for COVID-19 on this continent. Heavy use of AI, anonymized cell phone location data and travel data from major airlines were used by this company to predict where the pandemic would spread next. While Blue Dot is using AI to detect outbreaks and progression, there are innumerable other companies that are using their ability to monitor people at home for a similar purpose. A Seattle startup, Sentinel Healthcare, released an app that monitors temperature and symptoms of people quarantined in their homes. Pulse oximeters monitor lung function, a critical indicator for COVID-19 presence, and you can buy one and use it in your home. The remote monitoring field is a fertile area of innovation and these tools will radically transform disease monitoring and population health tracking. The FDA eased regulations (temporarily) to speed up the use of remote monitoring apps. Sentinel surveillance in the future will be turbocharged by collecting data from all of us and maybe help with identifying and counteracting the second wave of COVID-19 predicted for this fall.

Health inequities

Reporting that minority communities in urban centers were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 shed a spotlight again on the health inequities that plague this nation. Addressing these inequities will become a priority as many millions will be signing up for Medicaid now. This article in MIT Technology Review provides a fairly detailed look at the impact of health insurance and poverty. Professor Finkelstein uses a completely data-driven approach in her analysis. Though the article has no direct bearing on the pandemic, the analysis challenges several popular hypotheses. Her results are quite relevant from a policy formulation perspective in the post-pandemic world. Examples of counterintuitive findings: proactive care does not reduce hospitalization and providing Medicaid does not reduce ER visits. The analysis provides some sobering points for policy makers to ponder.

Digital world

One point almost everyone appears to agree on: Telemedicine is going to be the new normal. Its increased use has been spurred by (temporary) regulatory rule relaxation, such as paying for televisits and allowing for cross state practice. Perhaps these regulation changes will become permanent. In this opinion compilation, 21 global health thinkers provide their wide-ranging views of a post-pandemic world. The tech focused opinions highlight the role of digital tech adoption, widespread use of telemedicine, remote learning (for health education) and use of high tech in supply chain management (outgrowth of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilator shortfalls). Pharma companies have embraced digital tech and AI in a big way and are racing to find a cure for COVID-19. There is no going back on how drug discovery and drug and vaccine design are done. However, unfortunately, proving a drug is safe and effective in treating people still relies on old faithful: randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and that takes time.

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V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.