While we’ve mostly associated the pandemic with negative outcomes—deaths, disease, economic collapse, humanitarian crisis, failure of governance, etc.—we should also realize the one good thing it has led to—a cascade of innovations in responding to COVID-19 that has helped us cope with the virus and bring it under control.
Thinking about innovations and technology during a crisis and beyond is important. No matter how difficult the situation, health services must continue, with us on a constant lookout for opportunities to improve service delivery. Innovations and technology can help us in our response while strengthening our health system and contributing to health resilience. But it is essential that strategies are in place to adopt and/or design, use, and sustain these innovations.
In a study of the most innovative sectors during COVID-19, it was found that the health and fitness sector is the most innovative, followed unsurprisingly by the following: media and entertainment, food and beverage, information technology, and retail. This validates the common thinking that health was not only the topmost concern during the pandemic; it was also the main driver for creativity and innovation.
Furthermore, looking at the most common innovations during the pandemic, it can be gleaned that the primary concern was health. Repurposing operations saw many companies shifting into the production of personal protective equipment and medical equipment. Digital innovations in contact tracing and health monitoring became very popular and widely used. Curing cabin fever to make our quarantine or isolation experience more bearable gave birth to home delivery options, especially for food. Online platforms enabled health experts and workers to stay connected, productive, and educated.
Acts of solidarity through donations, pro bono services, and rallying support for medical and economic frontliners proved the connectedness of society in these trying times. Self-sufficiency through do-it-yourself endeavors, self-care, home monitoring of health conditions, and testaments of resilience also became widespread.
A stock-taking of COVID-19 strategies that are being enabled by innovations and technology reveals that for the most part, they were beneficial in the detection and containment of the disease, managing information (including infodemic), enabling health care providers in diagnosis and management of the virus, and accelerating its treatment by way of drugs and vaccines.
The crucial role of innovation and technology in the equally important aspects of recovery and building back better has emerged as well. Economic resilience can be achieved through the growth of e-commerce and other business continuity solutions. Social cohesion characterized by more effective communication between and among individuals, corporations, and institutions can be fostered using digital platforms. Cybersecurity to protect networks and people from cyber risks should be strengthened, and can be aided by technology.
Big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things, digital health, telemedicine, telework, virtual education. All of these technologies are revolutionizing health care delivery. The use of these innovations has resulted in good outcomes in terms of COVID-19 prevention, detection, isolation, quarantine, treatment, and recovery.
Still, we need to think beyond COVID-19 and see the potential of these technologies as being integral to the practice of medicine and public health to safeguard the health and well-being of our people.
To move forward, the government, with the support of relevant stakeholders, needs to distill good practices and use COVID-19 lessons to inform the roadmap on health innovations and research in the country. These innovations and technologies must be integrated into initiatives toward COVID-19 recovery and the strengthening of existing health systems.
At the same time, some issues need to be addressed, among them the digital divide, privacy and human rights, technical capacity, and trust. Moreover, barriers ranging from the financial, structural, sociopolitical, and cultural need to be overcome. The lack of foresight, attention, and urgency on leveraging health innovations and technology in our efforts to recover and build back better can spoil this unique opportunity being presented to us by the pandemic.
Let us learn to use modern tools and methods in fulfilling our age-old promise of health care that is available, accessible, and affordable to all.
Ronald Law is a medical doctor and public health practitioner, with expertise on health emergency and disaster management. He is also an academic, scholar, and advocate of future-ready health systems.
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