Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How technology can help contain H1N1

It makes sense to put a lot of resources into trying to prevent at least some of the estimated 46 million cases, 2.7 million hospitalizations, 300,000 cases of respiratory failure and 200,000 deaths expected this flu season from H1N1 in the US. I believe that technology can be leveraged to mitigate this epidemic. Here is how.

The obvious solutions are already here. We are using social media outlets, Twitter, Facebook, to keep up with the galloping epidemic. Making sure that the majority of the population has access to this relevant information could help local health departments to broadcast latest recommendations. The availability of remote learning and work environments should make it much easier to make sensible decisions about work and school closures without major adverse consequences to the economy, at least in the non-production sectors. Webcasting technology can be a good substitute for remote meetings, thus obviating the need potentially for many people to travel across the country or the world.

And there are other, less obvious ways, in which technology can be useful. We can leverage the thriving possibilities of geographic information systems (GIS) not only to track the epidemic as it spreads, but to plan sensible triage on the ground. Another engineering approach, discreet event simulation, can be used to help avoid the much anticipated bottlenecks in the hospital emergency departments and ICUs. And I am sure there are other opportunities that this vast web of communication can offer us that I am not even aware of, but someone is! I sure hope that we are firing up these technologies and learning how to simulate this epidemic, so that we have at least a little more idea of what we are doing when it descends upon us full force. It is heartening to me that the Department of Health and Human Services has commissioned a count of all the mechanical ventilators in the US hospitals -- this basic activity will certainly help. What I have not heard anything about is what efforts are underway leveraging the sophisticated 21st-century technologies to optimize our approach. My guess is that these efforts, if they exist, happen at the local level and are quite fragmented and haphazard.

I think that it now takes very little imagination to foresee the potential fall out from this virus. So, let's use our imagining energy on how we can mitigate the epidemic. The DHHS, if it has not done so yet, should convene a panel of docs, EMS professionals, engineers and IT experts to develop contingencies and test them virtually. This way, when the full epidemic strikes, we will not have to blame our collective lack of imagination for not preventing a catastrophe.

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