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Empowering Asia’s health care sector in the battle against COVID-19

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching health care systems across the Asia Pacific region and around the world. The infrastructure and supply chains of health care providers are being challenged, and our health care front-liners work tirelessly to provide treatment and support in a time of unprecedented demand for patient care. And if there is one question on the minds of those of the pandemic’s front-line it is most likely: “Can we do more with less?”

It is crucial to speed up routine tasks and services, especially during this time when a growing number of patients and limited resources can quickly overwhelm staff. We have seen how collaboration with customers and partners has taken on a speed and agility that we’ve not encountered before and how new cloud-based solutions, often leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, can do much to augment the work of doctors, nurses and first responders.

Dr. Keren Priyadarshini, regional business lead, Worldwide Health, Microsoft Asia
Dr. Keren Priyadarshini.

It can start with better managing resources and protecting the health of personnel and patients from the very moment someone enters a hospital.

Taipei’s Yonghe Cardinal Tien Hospital deployed digital first-line protection measures and resource management in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. It installed a “2-in-1” detection device at its main entrance that collects and analyzes data with AI and machine learning to scan individuals as they enter the hospital’s lobby. It sends out an alert if there are potential health concerns – such as a raised temperature. Scanning from a distance and autonomously minimizes risk for everyone. It also has delivered much-needed efficiencies by significantly streamlining the number of staff who are needed to monitor arrivals. That means more time and personnel can be allocated to patient care.

Similarly, Austin Health in Melbourne has introduced COVID-Care systems to improve their capacity to cope with anticipated demand. Patients no longer have to come to the hospital but can use a self-assessment tool instead. If advised to be tested, they are also advised of the nearest testing clinic or, if directed to Austin Health, can book an appointment. Another of the system’s tools monitors the symptoms of recuperating patients. Using AI and algorithms, COVID-Care automatically alerts doctors to follow up with patients via telehealth consultations and determine if the patient needs to go to the hospital or can stay home.

AI and machine learning can greatly assist front-liners and alleviate the stress on our health care systems. Since the beginning of March, health organizations have created 1,600 COVID-19 self-assessment bots with the Microsoft Healthcare bot service that help respond to inquiries and free up health care workers. This has served over 31 million individuals across 23 countries to date. More than ever, it is crucial that patient needs are met despite limited resources, to ensure the well-being of our communities and technology can support that.

Ensuring accessibility to health care in safe conditions through remote care

There are more challenges when a patient is fighting COVID-19 along with existing medical issues. Let’s take for example a COVID-19 patient who also has a broken limb. Could an orthopedic doctor attend to the patient without entering the isolation ward themselves?

The team at Austin Health has addressed this with their deployment of Microsoft Teams and Teams Navigator to help their 8,500 staff collaborate and assist doctors in conducting virtual ward rounds. They can check in on their patients in the isolation wards, while maintaining a safe distance.

In India, Fortis Healthcare has introduced tele-consultations, which have proved helpful for those like expectant mothers and individuals with mental health conditions who need continuous treatment and high frequency care.

We see how health care providers like HealthCare Global (HCG), India’s largest provider of cancer care, addressed this challenge by adopting Teams Virtual Consult. Doctors now schedule and conduct virtual consultations with patients who can continue receiving the necessary care from the safety of their homes.

Similarly, in China, Sichuan’s Huili County People’s Hospital and Chengdu’s Third People’s Hospital deployed a remote consultation platform, connecting patients in need from a remote part of the country with the quality medical care provided from a distant facility. Doctors use Surface, Azure and AI to carry out remote online consultations. They can also discuss cases and diagnoses with fellow physicians remotely.

Reimagining access to healthcare

Bain and Company’s 2020 Asia-Pacific Front Line of Healthcare survey revealed that the adoption of digital health services due to COVID-19 is not just unprecedented, but also one that will endure. Nearly 50% of patients said that they expect to use digital health tools in the next five years, and 91% of consumers said they would if the costs were covered by an insurance provider or employer.

Dr. David Rhew, global medical chief officer at Microsoft, reinforces this perspective, saying, “This pandemic has given us a great understanding that we need digital tools in health care. Tools that enable everything from telehealth to remote patient monitoring, care team collaboration and care at home. Virtualizing and streamlining other aspects of care from ventilator management to supply chain management have now become vital elements of health care in the COVID-19 era.”

Access to medical supplies, especially as countries remain under lockdown, is another critical element for the safety and well-being of communities. In response, Zuellig Pharma, one of the largest health care services groups in Asia, ensures that vital supplies get to those who need them. They launched a 24/7 interactive engagement platform to assist their customers – hospitals, clinics and pharmacies – with placing orders for prescription drugs, medical devices or consumer health products any time, anywhere to make sure that every medical facility and every patient have access to the medicines they need.

During the pandemic, limited access and possible shortages to pharmaceutical supplies have raised concerns around counterfeit drugs entering the market. In response, Zuellig Pharma has also fast-tracked the development of eZTracker, which allows consumers to verify the authenticity of a medicine by scanning a code on the packaging.

Gearing up for the battle ahead

In the short span of time since the emergence of COVID-19, we have already seen significant changes in the way that health care is delivered. Undoubtedly, the pandemic will have a profound impact on the whole industry for years to come.

I cannot agree more with Dr. Rhew, who emphasized that, “a safer return to the workplace will require a lot of changes in how businesses will be run. Every organization must adjust, and Microsoft has the ability to support them.”

As efforts to battle the pandemic continue, we are hopeful that technology will continue to play a meaningful role in equipping health care experts with the tools they need for meaningful patient care and contributing toward research for a cure.

As part of our efforts, Microsoft has mobilized an AI for Health initiative with $20 million dedicated to help on the front lines of research, where our data scientists can best contribute: data and insights; treatment and diagnostics; allocation of resources; dissemination of accurate information; and scientific research.

We’ll also be offering Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare, our first industry-specific cloud offering,  in October. This will help bring together capabilities for customers and partners to enrich patient engagement, connect caregiving teams and improve operational efficiencies. Ultimately, to address the most pressing challenges the industry is facing today.

We’ll also continue to work with our partners, including ATGENOMIX, a startup in Taiwan that is providing virus genome sequencing technology, which runs on Azure HPC, to speed up research and health care analysis, and support vaccine development

Ultimately, the collaboration across our broad ecosystem and beyond is crucial to effectively address the challenges of this global crisis and support our customers in building their resilience and agility so they can continue to provide so much needed care for the communities.

We are committed to working together to empower health care organizations in the fight against the adverse effects of the pandemic and in the long run, support their pivot toward better experiences, better insights and better care.

(Top photo by kumikomini/Getty Images)