Thinking About Contact Tracing?
A little over two months ago, two of the world’s largest technology companies, Apple and Google, agreed to collaborate on creating a platform that organizations can use for contact tracing. The platform takes advantage of Bluetooth technology on smartphones, while releasing an API to create interoperability between iOS and Android devices.
In May, the two companies launched the Exposure Notifications API so that public health agencies can create their own contact tracing apps using it. People who download those apps have the option to opt-in, receiving exposure notification about other Covid-19-positive individuals in close proximity while also sharing their own Covid-19 test results with others.
Unfortunately, many state health officials have chosen to shun technology pretty much altogether and to resort to manual efforts for contact tracing. These approaches involve deploying people to have conversations with citizens in order to determine whether they have been exposed to Covid-19. This is a classic example of technologists coming up with a good idea, but failing to market it effectively enough to influence the broader agenda.
Sensitivity over privacy.
There is clearly an urgent need to establish effective contact-tracing approaches. But healthcare CIOs must try harder to help forge a consensus on the right one to take. The challenge is significant because contact tracing has considerable implications for people’s privacy. Citizens may not wish to opt-in to share personal information, even though that information is helpful for efforts to combat the pandemic. Still, we need to make progress here and CIOs will need to use their political capital behind closed doors to move things forward.
Recently, there has been an uptick in the number of Covid-19 cases nationally. That makes it all the more urgent for health systems to take advantage of contact tracing technology to protect the workforce and community.
By leveraging platforms such as the one from Apple and Google, healthcare CIOs have the opportunity to step up and create hospital or community-focused contact tracing apps. It makes sense to zero in first on a relatively small target audience, such as the employee base of a hospital--or perhaps the population within a city’s boundary.
Look inside before looking outside
CIOs should also evaluate their current portfolio of solutions to determine whether they already have the software and data building blocks required to create contact tracing technology. For example, Epic EMR clients can take advantage of a contact tracing tool embedded inside the infection-control module of the software to identify exposed Covid-19 patients, along with any individual that had contact with the patients during their hospital treatment.
Unfortunately, the majority of healthcare IT departments are not set up as a software development shop. CIOs therefore have three options. They can ramp up their internal software development teams; they can find software development partners; or they can activate contact tracing features within their current solutions if these happen to exist or are added by vendors.
The toughest challenge of all won’t be building the apps, though. Instead, it will be persuading people to opt in to them and to share their private information, such as location data and test results. Hospitals generally enjoy a great deal of trust amongst communities and are therefore in a great position to succeed with deployments. Nevertheless, tech leaders will need to think creatively about how best to position and promote their creations.
None of this will be easy and it will only add to the already significant workloads healthcare IT departments and their leaders are dealing with. But getting well-designed and tested tracing apps out there will be an essential step in helping to bring the pandemic to an end.