The omens were good: the “2nd International E-Healthcare Applications Summit” had announced an interesting on-site programme for May 11th, 2020. Interesting workshop topics, start-up pitches and keynote speakers were announced. But, like so many times lately in the time of COVID-19, everything turned out differently: The Summit had to be converted into an online event. Read below how we experienced the event from the comfortable sofa at home.
Too bad, we thought. All goes digital. But the event organizers of High-Tech Connect Suisse surprised us with a hot topic: How can digital technologies contribute to fighting the virus pandemic? A topic on which a total of 33 speakers from various European, Asian and American countries took part in an online discussion. And for once, the Health-Trends Team was able to listen to the latest digital health trends from the comfort of our own sofa. And here is the good news in advance: The originally planned summit will now take place on September 21st, 2020 in Winterthur.
Other Countries, Other COVID-19 Strategies
In the face of the outbreak of COVID-19, the various healthcare systems around the world recognize the limitations of their analog world. It becomes clear that things cannot continue as before. Digital innovation in healthcare is needed to face the crisis. This was clearly demonstrated at the event’s first panel conference, which was attended by digital health experts from Switzerland, Israel, Singapore, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, India and Portugal. It became clear that each of the countries is launching and pursuing its own innovations in the fight against COVID-19. And, as we were listening to this news, it also became clear to us that some of these countries are already well ahead of Switzerland in the use of digital health. However, this was no real surprise for us.
Israel as Digital Health Leader
Israel emerged as a pioneer in the fight against the virus pandemic – a country which has only about 300,000 inhabitants more than Switzerland. However, Israel had massively lower COVID-19 infection figures and a very low death rate at the time of the conference. As was explained by Dr. Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay and Dr. Eyal Zimlichmann from the Sheba Medical Center, the reasons for this pioneering role included the rapid and consistent action of the Israeli authorities as well as the early lockdown of March 195h, 2020. Nevertheless, these two speakers also attribute an additional large share of the containment of the pandemic to the numerous digital innovations used in their hospital. These technologies were developed by a 40-member interdisciplinary innovation team in a programme called ARC (“Accelerateinnovation to Redesign health care by Collaborating with partners”). The ARC has been experimenting with digital health technologies in the hospital environment for years and plays a leading role worldwide in the everyday clinical use of technologies such as telemedicine, face recognition, automatic temperature and voice screening. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, these capacities within the ARC team were quickly and purposefully directed towards combating the virus.
Portugal with strong COVID-19 wing run
It was immediately clear to us that Israel is a clear digital health leader and that this pioneering role will also be clearly expressed in the fight against COVID-19. But, during the online discussion, Portugal also surprised us. As Dr. Micaela Monteiro, Chief Medical Officer for digital transformation at the José de Mello Saude Hospital, explained, Portugal was also able to quickly get the COVID-19 crisis under control based on targeted digital initiatives. In Portugal, a digital NHS register with digital ID already existed before the crisis (Switzerland still dreams of it …) and shortly after COVID-19, the platform “Tracecovid” was launched. Tracevocid helps healthcare professionals to better track COVID-19 infections based on this digital ID and to derive appropriate actions. Portugal has thus created a central digital platform to combat the pandemic much earlier than Switzerland. And, Portugal was also quick and purposeful when it came to using digital health tools in the fight against COVID-19.
Using Technology Against COVID-19 Makes Sense, but also Raises Questions
As a practicing physician, Dr. Micaela Monteiro also explained the importance of dealing with new technologies and using digital tools such as telemedicine. The use of such technologies is still often exercised with reluctance in everyday clinical practice because of the psychological barriers in doctors’ minds. In addition, the insights of Eyal Ziemlichman from the Sheba Medical Center were exciting. He gave the audience an insight into the use of technology in his institution. At Sheba Medical Center, for example, artificial intelligence (AI) is used to recognize faces in order to run a contact tracing within the hospital. This AI can also automatically determine the frequency and length of the contact and distance between people, and whether or not a mask was worn. Thus, COVID-19 infected persons can be detected, isolated and treated early. This raises questions about the violation of the privacy of the persons concerned. But, according to Ziemlichmann, surveillance by means of cameras within the hospital was already a reality before COVID-19. And, the recordings are deleted within 24 hours. However, the combination of these images and AI-based facial recognition will allow better tracing of possible infections within Sheba Medical Center.
Our Conclusion of The Event, and Learnings for Swiss Healthcare System
From our point of view, it was a successful event, which was also well organized in the digital world. In particular, the various insights from other countries and the different strategies used were exciting. At the same time, we believe that there are certainly lessons for the Swiss healthcare system that can be taken away from the event. The examples from both Israel and Portugal show that the use of technology to combat pandemics makes sense and can be effective. In our view, however, it is not a matter of copying individual technologies or strategies, but rather of building up the corresponding capabilities to react to the unforeseen with innovations within a short time. For the Swiss healthcare system, this implies that it is worthwhile to promote digital skills and structures even without specific pressure from outside. This agility makes it possible to react faster in times of crisis. Swiss institutions therefore need structures and processes to remain innovative, fast and adaptable.