Crisis communications: how digital tools have helped in the war on coronavirus

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has placed healthcare systems around the world under massive strain. Technology can help alleviate the pressure and provide solutions to many challenging new problems: this includes communications, as people look to access healthcare information over the phone, or for healthcare professionals to receive urgent broadcast information.

New healthcare facilities that have been rapidly built need fast deployment of network infrastructure and digital tools. Mobile devices are already being used as a key part of contact tracing. What other technological healthcare developments are helping fight the pandemic?

Digital tools are helping healthcare services all over the world respond to the global COVID-19 emergency. In the UK alone, the National Health Service (NHS) has reported massive increases in technology use throughout its organization. For instance, use of Microsoft Teams has grown by over 800% to support thousands of home workers. The NHS app also grew in use by 111% as UK citizens made repeat prescription requests, and the number of people in the country using the NHS 111 online service for advice each day skyrocketed by over 5,000%. All over the world, governments and health providers are turning to technologies to fight against the pandemic. These include AI epidemiology modeling, chatbots to dispense advice and rapid-response test kits.

Historically, new technologies have played major roles in helping the medical sector track and treat viruses. 2018 for example saw a particularly serious flu season in the U.S. Digital tools proved their worth in the shape of smart connected thermometers that gathered data and enabled healthcare companies to trace illness spikes across the country.

In a similar vein, data gathered from wearables like Fitbit can monitor resting heart rates and sleep duration periods to help medical companies build accurate models of population-level influenza trends – something else that may come to be useful during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Italy, hospitals are using virtual reality (VR) tools to help reduce staff stress. Provider Limbix Italia has given VR headsets to COVID-19 hospitals to try to improve the psychological and emotional well-being of its staff and reduce stress and anxiety of frontline caregivers working long shifts.

Consistent communications in a crisis

Keeping healthcare workers safe is a main priority during the COVID-19 outbreak. But staff still need to be able to communicate with each other while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). Smart wearables are being worn under PPE to give healthcare staff access to clear, secure, hands-free communications channels, whether they are working in an emergency room, an intensive care unit (ICU), an isolation ward or somewhere else in the hospital. And it enables care teams to provide safer, high-quality patient care.

Patients and remote healthcare workers also want to keep in touch while remaining safe and isolated, and digital tools are enabling them. NHS trusts in the UK are giving clinical staff access to videoconferencing and display technology to enable COVID-19 planning while adhering to social distancing. Similar tools have been given to patients to enable them to have face-to-face consultations with healthcare professionals.

Another tool providing big benefits during the COVID-19 crisis is instant patient messaging. Citizens all around the world need to be kept informed of the latest news on the COVID-19 situation, and hundreds of thousands of instant, automated SMS messages have been performing the task. Messages have been sent out to give advice to patients on what to do if they are displaying symptoms, and governments have been using mobile networks to send out mass “stay at home” and other lockdown messages.

Tracking and tracing

Among the most vital elements of the COVID-19 response strategies is tracking and tracing. The ability to establish high virus density zones and isolate them is key to winning the fight against the virus’ spread. And digital tools are playing a crucial role here, too.

The Chinese government recently released a new app to help people find out if they have been exposed to COVID-19. Users can access the app through social media platforms like WeChat, Alipay and QQ and, by registering their phone numbers, names and IDs, find out if they have come in close contact to confirmed or suspected cases. India launched a similar app, Corona Tracker, in early May.

Orange has worked on a similar project in France, providing expertise to the development and distribution of the StopCovid app. The initiative is designed to support healthcare professionals and public services via a mobile app. The app was released in Android and iPhone stores in June.

Enabling healthcare professionals and facilities

In France and around the world, Orange has been helping health services do their jobs by providing them with reliable, efficient technologies and tools that can help them manage the COVID-19 emergency. Since the crisis began, Orange vastly increased capacity in its network to enable additional telephone channels and facilitate access to emergency medical services. Orange has also provided French hospitals with platforms that let them send out mass texts and emails to health staff.

Furthermore, Orange Healthcare teams are deploying new data management tools that can help with patient care. According to Éric Pieuchot, Managing Director of Orange Healthcare, “Hospitals can share the number of available intensive care beds with regional health authorities. Deploying new cloud capabilities also enables secure hosting platforms to be installed for medical imaging.” On top of this, to help overworked medical teams and ease patient waiting times, Orange has deployed connected medical devices like Patient Connect to facilitate patient monitoring. The solution feeds data provided by electrocardiograms or oxygen pumps into a single screen.

Demand for digital tools has surged during the COVID-19 crisis and is helping healthcare professionals manage the response. Ben Davison, NHS Digital’s Executive Director for Product Development, said: “These are unprecedented times, and with social distancing now the norm for everyone, we’re really starting to see digital technologies come to the fore. Technology is making it possible for doctors, nurses and other health professionals to continue to deliver care remotely where possible and freeing up time for those patients who need face-to-face care.”

Read how Orange teams are mobilized to support hospitals and develop a contract tracing app for France.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.