How artificial intelligence is helping the fight against coronavirus

The technology is providing data on local Covid-19 infection sites, hospital wait times, availability of masks and other useful information

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MARCH 25:  A worker sprays disinfectant, as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 on March 25, 2020 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 18,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
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Artificial intelligence is improving the ability of healthcare providers to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic – allowing for faster diagnoses and speedy dissemination of trusted information as well as detecting fraudulent insurance claims and accurately evaluating patient data in real time.

SoftBank-backed AI company Automation Anywhere is offering free healthcare bots to help the industry manage increased workloads due to the outbreak.

"Bots are software that will be configured within the company's system in 24 to 48 hours. They can keep a track of infected people, analyse data, find new trends and perform clerical tasks," Milan Sheth, the company's executive vice president for India, the Middle East and Africa, told The National.

Collaborating with one of its technology partners in Macau, Automation Anywhere has developed a global positioning system-enabled dashboard that shows local statistics, sites of infection, hospital wait times, local availability of masks and other useful information which is updated every few minutes.

“These bots will perform repetitive mundane tasks such as data entry or answering customer queries to free up human employees to tackle more important work … it will boost productivity and save time,” said Mr Sheth.

Automation Anywhere's health bots, which are also configured to respond in the Arabic language, are currently used by governments and private organisations in countries including India, China, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

The company is also exploring options to offer its solutions to different pharmaceutical and research companies in the Middle East.

UAE start-up Okadoc – an instant doctor-booking platform – is launching its telemedicine service in the next couple of weeks to tackle increased demand from patients for remote healthcare advice.

"We have been working on developing our own telemedicine service [for the] last six to seven months … we will be launching in the next two weeks," Fodhil Benturquia, founder and chief executive of Okadoc, said.

A tractor driven by a worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant on the street to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Marneuli near Tbilisi, Georgia March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Last month, Okadoc raised $10 million (Dh36.7m) in its latest funding round from institutional and private investors. The company has had a spike in calls from patients since the coronavirus outbreak.

Telemedicine can also help with at-home testing for Covid-19.

A US start-up, Scanwell, is working on developing at-home testing equipment for the coronavirus. The technology, which has been used by millions in China, was first developed by a Chinese technology company, Innovita, and was approved by a local health regulator.

Scanwell said customers can use the equipment under the guidance of medical professionals through a telemedicine service, with the results available within a few hours. However, its use is still subject to US Food and Drug Administration approval.

Another US company, Everlywell, said it has dropped plans to sell its first batch of testing kits for Covid-19 directly to consumers.

Earlier, the company had announced it would start selling 30,000 kits from this week but later said it will only provide the equipment to medical facilities.

"For the time being, Everlywell's Covid-19 test will only be available to qualifying hospitals and healthcare companies who can commit to providing the test for free to healthcare workers and high-risk, symptomatic patients affected by the testing shortage," the company said.

Industry experts said Everlywell took a U-turn after it did not get required approvals from the FDA.

"We want to alert the American public that, at this time, the FDA has not authorised any test that is available to purchase for testing yourself at home for Covid-19," the FDA said last week.

Drone technology is also proving handy for many healthcare providers globally.

Countries such as China, Spain and South Korea are using drones to keep an eye on people during lockdown campaigns and to disinfect communities. Terra Drone Group company Antwork flew medical samples and quarantine materials in China’s Xinchang province in February when the pandemic was at its peak.

A smart field hospital, staffed by robots, also opened in China’s Wuhan on a trial basis this month, supported by China Mobile and robotics company CloudMinds.

Okadoc, which has operations in the UAE and Indonesia, said it has managed to bring down patients' wait time in Indonesia from more than five hours to 15 minutes by studying behaviour patterns of doctors.

Mr Benturquia said the model developed in the country could play a crucial role as hospitals around the world experience a spike in admissions, leading to longer wait times.

“Using AI and machine learning, we studied the doctors’ behaviour and accurately predicted when he is free… sometimes even in-between the already booked appointment slots.”

Many doctors do not use the entire 20 minute-slot assigned to each patients, with some dealt within less than five minutes.

“So we adjusted the patients in that remaining extra time. This model could be very successful in countries where there are not enough doctors,” said Mr Benturquia.

In the GCC, there are more than two doctors for every 1,000 residents and in Dubai there are 3.7, but in Indonesia there are only 0.6, according to Okadoc.

Social media is also helping healthcare organisations to address coronavirus concerns to some extent.

For example, Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha) is using WhatsApp bots to keep the public informed with relevant information as well as reducing the spread of fake news and rumours.

"We are continuously updating the bot with questions that we are receiving from the public," said Dr Marwan Al Kaabi, director of group readiness and business continuity at Seha.

The health service provider has launched a WhatsApp line, +971-56-371-3090 that was initially programmed to respond to 20 questions, but can now answer more than 200.

"It will take into account different phrasings of questions and potential spelling mistakes, to make sure that the community find what they are looking for through the service," said Dr Al Kaabi.

Seha is planning to integrate more AI applications into the bot to make it more dynamic and capable of integrating live updates from a trusted source such as the World Health Organisation.

“This will ensure the public are only receiving the latest up-to-date information available in real-time, without us having to manually update it.”

Social media giant Facebook has also announced various initiatives to help people stay informed through Instagram. It has added more educational resources in Instagram Search and stickers to promote accurate information.

It is also removing Covid-19 content unless posted by a credible health organisation.