Coronavirus: The role of tech from telemedicine to Star Trek-like devices
Police in China are using Robocop-style helmets embedded with AI to spot someone with a fever from 16 feet away. A restaurant in L.A. has been checking people’s temperatures at the door with an infrared noncontact thermometer. And a hotel near Texas Medical Center in Houston just deployed germ-zapping robots to sanitize guest rooms and common areas. In the war against the spread of the coronavirus, tech gadgets and telemedicine services are getting fast-tracked to the front lines.
High-tech help ready and waiting
It’s been a whirlwind few months for Dr. Samir Qamar. I first met the family practice physician and health tech CEO this past January at CES, where he showed me a new device pending FDA approval called MedWand.
Tucked away inside a gadget just slightly larger than the average computer mouse, 10 medical-grade diagnostic tools and a powerful high-definition camera allow a physician to examine you virtually, no matter where you are in the world. It can listen to your heart and lungs, measure respiratory rates and blood oxygen levels, take your temperature, scan your skin and even peer at your tonsils. All of this information gets sent in real time to your doctor who watches, listens, and interacts through a secure video portal on their computer.
At the time, Dr. Qamar told me the Tricorder-like device would likely get FDA approval by mid-to-late summer 2020.
“This is the future of healthcare,” he said in January. “I can sit right here in Las Vegas and examine a patient on a battlefield. This will save lives.”
Little did he know, just a few weeks later, he and the rest of the medical community would be waging war on a global pandemic called the coronavirus. "MedWand has specific diagnostic instruments to remotely examine coronavirus patients, so we filed for an emergency use authorization with the FDA that would allow us to get these devices into the right hands, right away.”
While they wait on the approval process that could take anywhere from a few days to a few months, Qamar and his team are assembling "quarantine kits" that include the MedWand – already housed in an antimicrobial casing – along with UV sanitizers, glucometers, and blood pressure kits.
“We have the right tool at the right time and we can deploy fast. There’s no learning curve. It’s a web-based software with military-grade encryption, so it can be ready really quickly. It can help with triage, monitoring people in quarantine, and for examining people for other conditions without bringing them into a potentially contaminated area.”
Doctoring from a distance
Halfway across the world, doctors in Israel are already using a $300 consumer device called Tyto to monitor people from afar. “Once the COVID-19 outbreak started, we knew we had to immediately adopt the best possible technologies to remotely examine infected patients in quarantine,” Dr. Eyal Zimlichman, chief medical officer and chief innovation officer at Sheba Medical Center in Israel wrote in an email.
Zimlichman’s team is using Tyto to help treat nearly a dozen people quarantined nearby after being aboard the coronavirus-infected Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.“Tyto Care has given us unprecedented clinic-quality insight into the health of our patients from afar. This not only helps keep our medical staff safe but helps prevent exposure between patients and the spread of the virus among the public.”
“Investment in telehealth has exploded since the outbreak,” Jason Bellett, co-founder and COO of Eko Health, told me over the phone. “We’ve had more than three-times the in-bound requests already,” he added. Eko is a Berkeley, California-based health-tech company that created an FDA approved next-gen digital stethoscope with an AI-powered cardiac screening platform – similar to Shazam for heartbeats. The devices range in price from $200 to $350 and if prescribed by a physician, are often covered by insurance.
Bellett said his company has sold about 40,000 devices since 2016, and that they’re being used in more than 4,000 hospitals, but never has demand or urgency been this high. “We expect that number to triple as we respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and continue to equip health systems with the tools they need to monitor patients virtually, reduce the strain on the system, increase access to patients in rural communities, and limit unnecessary exposure for patients by keeping them at home,” Bellet added.
A doctor in the house
Telemedicine apps that connect people to doctors, nurses, and therapists over the phone or by video chat have been around for more than a decade but are only just now getting pushed to the forefront of healthcare. Late last week, the Trump administration said it would waive certain federal rules to make it easier for more doctors to provide care remotely and nearly every major medical center in the United States is ramping up the use of virtual visits to deal with the pandemic.
Apps such as Doctor on Demand, HealthTap, Teladoc, Amwell, and others that provide virtual physician visits through an online platform or patient portal are also seeing a steady rise in demand. But messaging and video-only calls can be limited, and many more services and gadgets are ready to fill in the gaps.
“We’ve had a 210% increase in calls this past week,” said Nick Desai, CEO of Heal, a company that offers video calls with a physician and in-person doctor visits to your home. Heal operates in some of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19 cases including the Silicon Valley in Northern California, New York City, and Seattle, Washington. But he says that the recent surge in house calls goes far beyond coronavirus concerns.
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“The majority of people who need healthcare in America right now likely don’t have coronavirus,” he said. They need (to see a doctor) because their child is sick, or they have diabetes or even food poisoning, and the worst place for anyone to be during this time is in an urgent care clinic, doctor's office or emergency room.”
Heal can usually get a healthcare provider to your home within a few hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week and operates in more than a dozen cities, including Manhattan, San Francisco, LA, Seattle and Atlanta. It’s covered by most insurance plans, including Medicare, for a co-pay that averages between $0 and $30. If it’s not covered, the in-home visit cost is $159.
As the pandemic unfolds around us, more hospitals and clinics are urging people with less severe symptoms and non-life-threatening conditions to stay home, in order to limit potential exposure and put less of a strain on the healthcare system overall. The demand is growing so quickly that beginning March 23, Desai says Heal will offer $19 video chats for anyone in any state or region where it already operates, including Virginia, Georgia and Washington, D.C.
Heal also provides longer-term in-home monitoring – that could come in especially handy for seniors or people with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease or diabetes – through a service it calls the Heal Hub. “The Hub itself is a plug-in device that looks like a nightlight. It has a 4G chip inside and Bluetooth as well,” Desai explained.
In order to get it installed in your own home though, a Heal doctor has to prescribe it and a medical technician has to install it and make sure patients know how to use it. “We can track respiratory rate, heart rate, pulse ox, and more, in real time. Your doctor – your actual Heal doctor who has seen you at home or via a telemedicine visit – gets your vital signs in real-time. They know if you're sick before you do." Desai said the Hub is usually covered by insurance as well, including Medicare.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.