The coronavirus: a test case for excellent remote healthcare

15 March 2020
Digital Health

Fear of the coronavirus has gripped the world as a result of the constant media coverage. Hand sanitizer and surgical masks are sold out everywhere, and hygiene is the topic now that the virus has also gained a firm foothold in the Netherlands. But as healthcare providers we must ask ourselves: Are we doing enough to prevent further contamination? I believe this is the perfect opportunity to quickly and effectively start using of digital technology.

As a doctor, I am well aware that I myself pose a threat to my patients should I become infected with the coronavirus. This isn’t only because the majority of my patients are classified as being in the vulnerable group, but more so because I cannot afford to be sidelined by illness or quarantine. One of the precautionary measures I will be taking is to skip certain events and social get-togethers for the time being. I am also glad to see healthy people around me being smart by washing their hands often and maintaining their physical distance from others. They’re not doing this for themselves, or due to hysteria or panic, but out of a sense of solidarity with those people for whom infection with the new virus could prove fatal.

As I am writing this blog, large organizations are deciding en masse to make the responsible choice as well. The HIMSS decided to cancel its annual global conference in Orlando, for example. Apart from the major (financial) consequences of this decision, it is nevertheless a decision that is aligned with that organization’s objective of improving healthcare. Organizer Hal Wolf, explains his reasoning for cancelling the event: “Allowing so many healthcare providers to gather in one place is a disproportional risk now that they are so desperately needed in the field.”

Communicating faster than the virus spreads

Despite all efforts being made to constrain further spreading, we will all be increasingly confronted with the virus. The situation is also having an impact on us healthcare providers and necessitates flexibility on our part, especially when dealing with possible staff shortages or conflicting interests when under the pressure of time. We are examining the possibility of switching to one on-shift doctor, with the rest being on call but working remotely.

We are also determining which matters can be taken care of by telecommuting. This is the time when we could clearly benefit from seamless digital communication: for patients, healthcare providers, volunteers and crisis teams alike. It is notable that when making arrangements regarding communication in the hospital the advice is not to rely on emails from the crisis team, let alone on a printout of the latest emergency protocol, but to instead rely on the online portal

More remote organization

As a radiation oncologist, some of the patients I treat are receiving chemotherapy, and sometimes they also have COPD. Their risk of dying from the new coronavirus is therefore significantly higher than that of healthy people. This is also a good reason to get the flu shot at the beginning of flu season, to minimize these patients’ risk of exposure as much as possible. Remember, these are people who are fighting for their lives! Hygiene is extremely important now: maintaining your physical distance from others, not shaking hands, washing your hands after all contact with others, disinfecting surfaces such as door handles and keyboards, and so on.

Physical contact with patients is necessary sometimes, but now is a good time to consider alternatives to this contact. Last week I received a text message from one of my patients. She had returned from vacation, didn’t feel well at all and was on her way to the hospital for an evaluation scan. In such cases video calling is a good solution thanks to the additional information images can provide. In addition to the general measures taken to warn patients via websites, the media and automatic text messages, it is very important for healthcare professionals to be readily accessible and be able to seamlessly coordinate with each other.

Public data required for health gains

The importance of data for achieving health gains at the public level is becoming painfully clear. Northern Italy has been quarantined, and if you look at a world map you will find a sea of red surrounding that country’s national borders. The European Union and United Nations need to work together, but a lot remains to be done in this respect. I would dearly love to see the European Commission’s policy include cooperation that taps into the potential of information technology as the foundation of good healthcare, regardless of which member state this concerns.

When it comes to privacy, the issue is really not as complex as we all think it is - as long as the focus is on the interests of patient care and public health, and confidentiality is ensured. Maps that provide live updates on the worldwide spreading of the virus show just how much we have to gain from having a reliable dashboard. In the interest of public health, health data and related data are crucial for obtaining faster but above all more accurate information regarding underlying factors: how the virus behaves, what its effect is on different populations, etc. What’s more, we all have an opportunity to use such data to better assess our own behavior and its effect on the further spreading of the virus.

Want to learn more about the legal aspects? I recommend this blog.

Share information

There are plenty of shady companies trying to make a quick buck by selling “remedies” that at best don’t work and at worst are harmful. That’s why it is so important that we, as healthcare providers realize what an essential source of information we are for our patients. This is our strength. And patients expect it from us, too. We should all use our power to inform. Not only in the consulting room but far beyond it as well. Share information via social media and apps, of course ensuring that it is aligned with the recommendations of leading authorities on the topic, such as the WHO and the RIVM (Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment).

We should not hide from the coronavirus. Because now more than ever it’s crucial for you to be there for your patients - just in a safe way.