8 ways tech pros are helping healthcare providers cope with coronavirus

Free telehealth toolkits, childcare calculators, and symptom screeners are a few of the tools and services now available to ease the burden on hospitals and doctors during the outbreak.

8 ways tech pros are helping healthcare providers cope with coronavirus

As the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus grows and the number of cases starts to grow exponentially, tech companies and individual experts are stepping up to help. White hat hackers are using password crackers to support the search for a vaccine. Telehealth companies are offering their platforms for free, and coders have created a childcare scheduling tool. These digital health services will help patients trying to understand symptoms as well as doctors and nurses trying to take care of patients and their own health at the same time. 

Canadian company offers telehealth platform for free

Maple, a virtual care platform in Canada, will provide online coronavirus screenings with a live physician to all Ontario residents in the provincial health plan. To support physicians during the outbreak, the company will provide its virtual clinic software to all Ontario and British Columbia physicians free of charge. Ontario and British Columbia are the only provinces that currently allow doctors to see patients in this way under provincial health plans.

SEE: The tech pro's guide to video conferencing (free PDF)

Telemedicine keeps people out of emergency rooms and allows them to talk with a doctor about symptoms from home. After each screening visit on the Maple platform, patients will be able to fax a summary of their results to their family physician center for next steps.

Using password crackers to analyze the virus

In addition to helping doctors provide care, technologists are helping researchers find a vaccine for the coronavirus. White hat hackers are using crowdsourced simulations to understand how the virus behaves. The red team at CRITICALSTART found that the company's password cracker Cthulhu can be used to run computer simulations that mimic the same complex protein folding that occurs in viruses. By using computational algorithms that simulate protein folding, doctors and healthcare professionals can better understand the virus and potentially identify an effective vaccine. Cthulhu can brute-force all combinations of upper case, lower case, space, number, and symbols from a single character to eight-character passwords iteratively in roughly six hours. Analyzing the molecular makeup of a virus takes similar levels of computing power.

CRITICALSTART is sharing its work with Folding@home. This volunteer effort is a distributed computing project for disease research that simulates protein folding, computational drug design, and other types of molecular dynamics. The project uses the idle resources of personal computers owned by volunteers around the world.

Free text messaging about COVID-19

OptimizeRx Corp has launched a free text message alert program that provides coronavirus information issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directly to any mobile device. The company has a similar service for healthcare providers. Anyone can text VIRUS to 55150 to subscribe. Each message includes a link to the source of the information. Each text ends with a new word to send to receive the next message. 

The service is free for people with unlimited texting plans. The company is using its digital network, technology platform, and partnerships to provide CDC alerts as a public health service. 

Chatbot for screening symptoms

Providence St. Joseph Health is helping people determine their COVID-19 risk with a screening tool built with Microsoft services. The Catholic healthcare system is based in a Seattle suburb and serves patients in six western states.

Providence took an existing chatbot and revamped it to help people worried about COVID-19 get answers about symptoms without calling physician offices or showing up at the ER. Aaron Martin, executive vice president and chief digital officer at Providence, said the hospital has been investing in a chatbot called Grace for more than two years. The service uses a mix of built-in-house technologies along with third-party solutions to help patients with symptom checking.    

Beerud Sheth, co-founder and chief executive officer of Gupshup, said that chatbots help calm individuals by giving them specific, accurate, actionable information. 

"Chatbots also help health authorities to receive accurate information from individuals speeding up response times and enabling rapid interventions," he said. "Both these factors are essential to defeat the chaos around the virus, instead focusing on actual problem-solving for both individuals and the authorities."

Gupshup is a smart messaging platform using the cloud to created conversational experiences.

Covid Child Care Calculator

Seattle was the first city where hospital employees had to deal with childcare centers closing. Now that daycare centers around the country are closing their doors due to COVID-19, more doctors, nurses, physician's assistants and hospital staff will need to find new childcare arrangements. Malcolm Harris, an author and magazine editor, worked with coders to build a tool for helping working parents divide up childcare among families: The Covid Child Care Calculator

Users don't have to register or start an account, and the scheduler doesn't store user data. Several families can enter work schedules into the tool, and a strong scheduling algorithm will give them the fairest possible arrangement of child care responsibilities. 

The guide for using the calculator states, "Whether it's a small circle of friends supporting a healthcare worker by watching their kid, or a few retail employees trading off with a tiny class of 8 year olds, the CCCC makes the annoying step of making and sharing a fair, joint schedule a cinch." The hope is that the tool will allow healthcare providers in particular keep working and have a safe place for their kids during work hours.

Telehealth toolkit for hospitals

Microsoft is covering the cloud component of a new toolkit from RX.Health. The idea is to put several services in one place to make it easier for hospitals to provide telehealth services to people who need answers to coronavirus questions. The company's coronavirus toolkit includes electronic guides for patients, digital triage linked with appointment reminders to identify patients at high-risk of exposure to the virus, a telehealth platform to monitor patients who have been quarantined, and checklists and quizzes to prepare health workers on the front lines. The digital health company is connecting triage software, remote monitoring platforms, and other digital health solutions to allow patient information to flow from one platform to another.  

Other partners in the project include Redox, a startup making it easier to share patient records, Suki, a voice assistant for doctors, and Curai Health, a platform to help physicians gather the relevant information from a patient and their chart to make a diagnosis.

Virtual reality support groups to combat isolation

On April 1, the Glimpse Group, Foretell Reality, and XRHealth will launch virtual support groups to people in isolation due to the coronavirus. The partnership will allow patients with similar ailments to connect via virtual reality and gain support from each other and from doctors associated with the XRHealth telehealth clinics.

All current patients of XRHealth Virtual Clinic in 17 states can attend the virtual reality support groups. A participant has a live video kickoff with a clinician to start a 90-day treatment program consisting of personalized VR training, progress reports, and live video check-ups.

Participants select a specific support group to attend, customize their avatar, and join a circle of up to eight participants in a living room filled with furniture and a large picture window. A trained moderator guides the session, and participants interact through gestures and voice in a life-like, three-dimensional environment.

Some insurance companies cover the sessions. The program costs $349 per month out-of-pocket, including hardware rental.

Dror Goldberg, general manager of Foretell Reality, said group empathy and understanding are instrumental to well being, and virtual reality provides a tangible feeling of group presence. 

"This is even more acute when people are remote from each other and cannot gather in person for various reasons–from physical limitations to a forced isolation like we unfortunately experience now with this pandemic," he said.

Speeding up the hiring process for healthcare workers

China sent 10,000 doctors to Wuhan province at the start of the outbreak in the country. When a doctor or other healthcare provider gets a new job in the US, the hospital has to verify the new hire's work and education credentials. The manual process takes between four to eight months and must be repeated every two years. During natural disasters, one region will have a sudden need for nurses and physician's assistants. Verifying a person's credentials is a slow process and a serious barrier to sending workers where they are most needed.

Merit, a company that has digitized the paper-intensive process of verifying credentials, is offering its services free to hospitals and healthcare systems during the national emergency caused by the coronavirus. 

This program lets any state agency, hospital, or volunteer organization issue and verify digital credentials within days. Merit is waiving all fees associated with system integration, onboarding, deployment, and support through the end of 2020.

Over 1,000 organizations dedicated to emergency response, professional licensing, occupational regulation, and workforce development use Merit's system, including the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, FEMA's National CERT program, and the University of Utah Health's OnlineCERT training program.

"Any participating state agency can instantly send verified credentials, allowing medical professionals to apply their skills where they're needed most," said Tomer Kagan, CEO of Merit, in a press release.


Also see

The latest cancellations: How the coronavirus is disrupting tech conferences worldwide (TechRepublic)
The tech pro's guide to video conferencing (TechRepublic download)
Coronavirus domain names are the latest hacker trick (TechRepublic)
Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)
As coronavirus spreads, here's what's been canceled or closed (CBS News)
Coronavirus: Effective strategies and tools for remote work during a pandemic (ZDNet)
How to track the coronavirus: Dashboard delivers real-time view of the deadly virus (ZDNet)
Coronavirus and COVID-19: All your questions answered (CNET)
Coronavirus: More must-read coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Doctor and senior woman patient, telehealth

Getty Images/iStockphoto