• Stodia Jackson

The Role of Information Technology in the Emergency Management of COVID-19

Updated: Jun 5, 2021


Emergency management of infectious disease outbreaks is critical for public health threats. The highly infectious virus, COVID-19, is currently an international public health concern. Governments and global health systems are facing the serious challenge of monitoring and managing the spread of the virus. Information Technology and the manner in which it is applied, in response to the virus, have been one of the important distinguishing factors in controlling the effects of the virus in different regions of the world. By means of digital technology, some countries have managed to maintain or curb the prevalence of infection. Effective emergency management in such a global disaster calls for collaboration and leadership as key foundational strategies. Four key phases in effective emergency management include (i) Prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Different countries have employed different strategies in managing COVID-19.

Information technology, which generally refers to the use of systems, (generally computer and telecommunications for storing, retrieving, and sending information) has been proven to be a useful approach in controlling each of the four phases in an emergency, especially the response phase. Digital technology is beneficial in increasing the speed of diagnosis, improving epidemic management, saving lives, and reducing the economic impact of disease outbreaks. Recent IT-based technologies include bioinformatics systems, telemedicine, mobile phones, decision support systems, infection control systems, robotics, online interactive dashboard/geographic information systems, internet of thing-(the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data), virtual reality, and surveillance systems. Results from some of the world’s advanced economies indicate the positive results from the application of these IT-based technologies in dealing with the pandemic. Below are a select few examples of these applications.


Information technology, which generally refers to the use of systems, (generally computer and telecommunications for storing, retrieving, and sending information) has been proven to be a useful approach in controlling each of the four phases in an emergency, especially the response phase. Digital technology is beneficial in increasing the speed of diagnosis, improving epidemic management, saving lives, and reducing the economic impact of disease outbreaks. Recent IT-based technologies include bioinformatics systems, telemedicine, mobile phones, decision support systems, infection control systems, robotics, online interactive dashboard/geographic information systems, internet of thing-(the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data), virtual reality, and surveillance systems. Results from some of the world’s advanced economies indicate the positive results from the application of these IT-based technologies in dealing with the pandemic. Below are a select few examples of these applications.


Bioinformatics Systems

Bioinformatics is a sub-discipline of biology and computer science that specializes in biological data collection, storage, analysis, and dissemination. Through virtual drug screening, this method is fast and affordable compared to the traditional drug screening approach. For example, in Italy, virtual screening of approved FDA databases led to the discovery that some of the HIV protease inhibitors (antiretroviral drugs used to reduce the viral load in the body) might be useful in COVID-19 treatment. Countries such as China and India have also made significant findings in relation to the COVID-19 virus while using this approach.


The Infection Control System in Hospitals

The Infection Control System also referred to as the observing system, is a “real-time monitoring and aid for instant correction to minimize the risk of nosocomial infection”. A new ICS was set up in China during the early period of the pandemic to aid medical personnel attending to patients in negative pressure isolation wards, which is a high-risk area where patients with air-bone infections are cared for. Cameras are placed in the entire ward except for the privacy areas. Trained infection control observers, appointed by the Department of Infection Control and Nursing in Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, supervise the attending healthcare providers via computer monitors, ensuring that all negative pressure isolation ward protocols are adhered to. This approach has also been proven to lessen anxiety among the attending healthcare personnel.


Telemedicine

To reduce face-to-face interactions between people and healthcare providers during the pandemic, telemedicine services have been used to remotely provide health care services and information. Due to the overload in clinics and hospital beds in China, the government, healthcare institutions, and a number of healthcare start-up companies took advantage of mobile internet and 5th Generation technologies to provide internet health care services by clinical experts from all over the country. Internet hospitals and home delivery health services catered to chronically ill patients have been in high demand considering the anxiety and depression being experienced due to the effects of the pandemic.


Limitations and Risks in IT-Technologies

IT-based technologies are numerous and have been used successfully by different countries in tracking, screening for infection, contact tracing, quarantining and self-isolation, and clinical management. However, this does not mean that there are no limitations or risks in IT technologies.

One of the most important limitations is that accessibility to the internet and mobile phones are disproportionate. As of 2019, an estimated 4 billion people use the internet worldwide, however, there is vast internet disparity between low and middle-income countries with 82% internet coverage in Europe versus 28% in Africa. Even in high-income countries, there are disadvantaged populations in remote or low-income areas who are excluded from most of these smart, digital technologies. In order for digital technology to be effective, there is a need to invest in technology infrastructure and the industry as a whole. Training programs, WI-FI hotspots, and subsidized mobile phone plans or automated applications that do not require continuous network access should be considered.

Furthermore, government-implemented surveillance and quarantine enforcement in the tracking and management of infection could infringe on privacy, whilst instilling fear in citizens. To mitigate this challenge, European authorities have proposed that data be retained for only 14 days, which is the period of viral transmission, and that essential digital measures be lifted once the pandemic ends. Some European countries are deploying an option in smartphone tracking applications with anonymized data, no central database, and no GPS information. The appropriate concerns about privacy and data security can be potentially offset by facilitating a return to a normal routine without a rebound in infections. Also, enforcing quarantine measures presents an additional challenge to populations that survive from hand to mouth.


Conclusion

IT-based technologies are an important aspect of the healthcare system, especially during a public health crisis. Managing COVID-19 continues to be a challenge in many parts of the world. Positive results have been witnessed with the use of these technologies, especially in developed regions of the world. These positive results include enhanced COVID-19 detection, prevention, treatment, and recovery. However, in many regions of the world, the IT sector is not as well developed. This creates greater challenges and limitations in managing the pandemic. Lack of development puts emphasis on the need for governments to invest more in IT technologies for use in the health system as these technologies continue showing great results.

 

Speaking Plainly:

  • Effective emergency management strategies are important in a crisis. This calls for collaboration and leadership from different sectors.

  • IT-based technologies are a useful approach in controlling the four phases in a crisis and they have proven to be an effective approach in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • With the positives that come from IT, there are limitations and risks in this approach including privacy violation and lack of IT infrastructure, systems, and trained personnel in some disadvantaged regions of the world.