As the COVID-19 pandemic relentlessly spreads globally it has been pushing healthcare systems to their limits and compelling governments and healthcare institutions to rethink their service delivery strategies. While the number of men infected by COVID-19 is greater than the number of women, globally girls and women face challenges as gender inequality has become more pronounced and women's health status has been affected. Member States, United Nations agencies, non-government organizations, and foundations are incorporating the use of technology to address this grave public health crisis.
COVID-19 is the first pandemic in human history where technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, productive, and connected while being physically apart.
Among the current innovations are the following:
In Spain, to address the shortages for personal protective equipment, coronavirus makers and tech companies open-sourced their designs for making masks and ventilators to assist patients with mild symptoms of COVID-19. Other companies made use of printers to print components to modify snorkeling masks into ventilator masks.
In Italy, The FabLab, a start-up company, launched a project that printed 3D valves, which were used to connect respirators to oxygen masks to meet the shortages in the supply chain of these valves. Formlabs, which partners with technology companies in the U.S., has started printing 3D nasopharyngeal swabs, which are needed to collect samples for COVID-19 testing.
Materialise, another tech company, has allowed free access to its designs for use with 3D printers to make custom-made hands-free common door handles to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus from inanimate objects, which are a common source of infection.
Using technology to track cellphone users has been used in countries like Singapore and South Korea for contact tracing. Bluetooth and wireless signals to trace users in proximity have been used in Singapore. On the other hand, South Korea's success in containing and managing the outbreak was due in part to tracking phone use, in addition to bank transactions and use of closed-circuit television footage.
It was interesting to note that Moscow launched a QR-based system to track the disease in the country. The U.S.-based tech giants such as Apple and Google launched a partnership in April 2020 to roll out a Test and Trace strategy.
Many safety-net clinics in the United States are using telehealth services as much as possible. According to a survey of health centers by the Health Resources and Services Administration in April, by the end of 2020 about 54% of health center visits were conducted virtually.
Planned Parenthood has announced that it will offer telehealth services in all states in the United States, including contraceptive counseling and other sexual and reproductive services.
Also in April 2020, the World Health Organization and the International Telecommunication Union with support from UNICEF announced a plan to partner with telecommunication companies to text people directly on their mobile phones with vital health messaging to help protect them from COVID-19. The aim is to leverage cellphone technology to connect with people who lack access to internet technology. The program is expected to launch initially in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 810 women died in 2017 from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. This rate could very well rise during the pandemic due to restrictions on movements and shelter-in-place orders. It is of utmost importance that pregnant women who cannot visit service providers regularly receive information related to their health.
Smartphones have been playing a crucial role for expectant women to receive information raising their health literacy, and many mobile apps have either been launched or revamped to cater to this growing audience. Going forward, such apps may become a regular part of the healthcare system providing reliable and certified health information.
Women in developing countries, where smartphones are a luxury, receive such information through SMS or use of Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) protocol to communicate with their service provider's computers via text messages.
Various countries, including the United States, are implementing new models, especially in large urban areas, to conduct virtual home visits to address the critical support needs of pregnant women. Midwives in developing countries are also starting to use this mechanism to connect with expectant women using tablets with built-in SIM cards. Some of these models might become part of a wider maternal health system even after the end of the pandemic.
Interactive Voice Response has also found an increased use as women can call a number and self-navigate through pre-recorded information before reaching an operator.
In a number of southern African countries, the United Nations Population Fund has provided tablets and smart projectors to midwives to promote distance learning. These pre-configured tablets have apps that are pre-loaded with animated content and health videos. The tablets can also aid virtual or augmented reality-based learning.
All these means are presenting opportunities to collect vital personally non-identifiable health information related to maternal health. The volume of information will come in handy as artificial intelligence-driven algorithms are developed to perform predictive analysis of the issues related to maternal health with an ultimate goal of reducing maternal mortality.
Padmini (Mini) Murthy, MD, MPH, MS, is professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management, in the Department of Public Health, and global health director at New York Medical College, and an executive member of the NGO Society on Mental Health and NGO Committee of the Department of Public Information at the United Nations.
Nayanesh Bhandutia, MS, MBA, is chief of Technology Services and IT Innovations at the United Nations Population Fund.