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Ebola: Can technology be an effective first responder?

October 16, 2014

There was a time when the scourge of Ebola in West Africa seemed like a horrible, but distant, threat Americans across the Atlantic didn’t really need to worry about. That narrative, however, changed dramatically a few weeks ago with the first reported case of the virus in the United States. Soon after that victim died, health officials found themselves scrambling for two infected Texas nurses who took care of him.  

The presence of Ebola in the U.S., as well as other developed Western countries like Spain, has raised an urgent call from policy makers and administration officials for enhanced screening at numerous U.S. airports. Recent reports indicate that five major U.S. airports known as entry points for passengers from Ebola-impacted countries will be equipped with screening systems. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has plans to increase the number of airports on that list.

But while there’s a demand and a definite need for screening, it’s not entirely clear if the technology to perform that level of screening is actually there. Patrick Tucker in Defense One questions whether the thermal fever scanning devices are effective and senses the answer is “not yet.”

“Fever can be a sign of a lot of different illnesses, not just Ebola,” writes Tucker. “And thermal scanning proved to be a poor method of catching bird flu carriers in 2009 as well. So presenting with an elevated temperature at an airport checkpoint does not indicate clearly enough that the fevered person is carrying the deadly virus. More importantly, the incubation period for Ebola is two days. As many as 20 days can pass before symptoms show up. That means that an individual could be carrying the virus for two weeks or longer and not even know it, much less have it show up via thermal scan. So what good are these scanners?”

Tucker makes a point—but that doesn’t mean the entire cause is lost. Such historic events have a habit of triggering pushes for innovation and the development of new technologies. As Tucker notes, we find companies like Corgenix that recently received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to create a “point-of-care” test for Ebola.

Hence, there are times when medical crises either prompt or are aligned with major advances in healthcare technology and other innovations. The H1N1 flu epidemic spurred organizations in the private and public sector to embrace telecommuting, which evolved into an easy preventive measure.  Chronic diseases have encouraged leveraging of mobile technologies for early detection and emergency response. Viruses like Ebola will wreak havoc on whole populations, but they also push existing marketplaces into action as governments and businesses respond. In addition, the Ebola event is happening at a time when “[r]ecent market developments are facilitating the convergence of healthcare and life sciences. Market strategists within the technology and service provider community should use this research to identify opportunities and challenges within the healthcare and life science industries,” writes Gartner’s Anurag Gupta in a recent research note about health technology trends.

Clearly identifiable progress in health sciences, especially areas such as Big Data health analytics and telemedicine, represent the next generation in medical care. “Maturity of information systems, advances in technology and industry changes now allow healthcare and life sciences to connect and share data,” adds Gupta.

Forrester’s Skip Snow argues in his most recent blog that response to Ebola is a mix of the traditional and the innovative. Effective crisis mitigation is a simple matter of coordinating existing resources and communicating with anxious audiences.  “The public must be informed of what their symptoms would look like if they had Ebola,” writes Snow. “They must be reassured that their own personal risk, if they are in any but the epicenter countries is low. They must be educated to be vigilant of others at risk. They must be taught when it is safe to interact with another person and when to shun them. The only way to do these activities at the global scale we need is to ensure that technology is in place to: 1) Create the core content including protocol posters scripts etc.; 2) Translate the information into the appropriate localized content in terms of language and cultural style; and 3) Propagate digital information to the community using traditional techniques as well as digital ones.”

These developments are equally instructive, promising and cautionary. On one level they show that all is not lost despite the understandable fear and hysteria of the larger public when dangerous viruses spread—the technology sector is in a good position as a digital first responder. That’s promising in the context of the technology’s positive effect on public health and its eventual use as an economic driver in a number of industries. Market watchers are already eyeing biotechnology companies working on vaccines. “Ebola isn't spread easily and a slate of emerging biotech companies are hard at work developing new therapies that target the tough to treat disease,” writes Motley Fool’s Todd Campbell. Still, there is a cautionary tale in terms of the innovation sector’s ability to find the talent and procure the service providers who can develop, integrate and deploy such technology adequately. While the existence of an Ebola “point-of-care” application is good news, it’s still in the experimental phase and won’t be in the marketplace until 2016.

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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