For all the challenges brought on by COVID-19, one bright spot has been the accelerated development of healthcare technology that is saving lives. A brighter future awaits.
or years, the healthcare industry has been a favorite target of cyber actors due to numerous exposure points growing out of its embrace of technology. Increased interconnectivity, an extensive supply chain that presents multiple vulnerability points, and legacy medical equipment built without security in mind are three such soft spots.
Unfortunately, that reality often leads us to focus more on risks and threats when discussing healthcare and cybersecurity rather than the positive outcomes from the convergence of the two fields.
But as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of crisis can bring out the best in both healthcare and cybersecurity — and especially so when they intersect to serve the common good.
That is cause for celebration.
A Positive Game Changer
If necessity is the mother of invention, the pandemic has spawned impressive, if not swift, results.
As the virus spread and more and more people were impacted, the lack of necessary medical equipment to combat COVID-19 quickly became a reality, especially in virus hot spots. To combat this challenge, Project N95, a rapid response nonprofit, was formed “to deliver critical equipment into the hands of healthcare providers as quickly as possible,” as noted on the company's website.
Ramping up such a complex process involved vetting medical equipment suppliers, providing a trusted platform through which healthcare professionals could report their critical needs, and facilitating the distribution of the supplies. Executing an initiative of that scale in a largely remote working environment required a well-coordinated technological approach. Established and robust cybersecurity capabilities made an option like this a possibility.
Similarly, Maker Mask, another collaborative initiative, developed the “first medically approved design for 3D printer protective masks to help fill the critical need for high-quality” personal protection equipment (PPE) using an open-source model according to PR Newswire. The method to produce these essential masks was subsequently made free to the public — in fact, the masks can be produced using readily available materials for anyone with a standard 3D printer.
Beyond developing the means of production, Maker Mask also launched a pilot manufacturing program in Seattle with plans to establish hundreds of similar locations that can run 24 hours a day. Just as with Project N95, Maker Mask’s humanitarian effort is using a foundation built on technology that, according to its website, “enable[s] people to meet the community needs for respirator quality masks and other critical medical supplies through 3D printing around the world.”
The noble efforts of Project N95 and Maker Mask are focused primarily on addressing the challenges on the front lines. Meanwhile, “behind-the-scenes” digital work is also underway to help facilitate a return to normal life.
Technology to the Rescue
Evidence has shown that digitally tracing COVID-19 in East Asia played a major role in slowing the spread of the virus in the region, as “these countries tend to be actively deploying technology to collect data on the virus’s progress and efforts to contain it,” says the Harvard Business Review.
Following suit, the European Commission is working toward the development of principles to share among all 27 EU countries for a technology used to track the virus using mobile apps. At present, their current techniques are fragmented, which slows progress, but there is discussion of developing a unified app that would enable a more apples-to-apples comparison of data. Digitally tracking individuals can help lead to safely quarantining anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, a potential option for when shelter-in-place restrictions are removed.
Věra Jourová admires the efforts. The Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency was quoted in Bloomberg News as saying that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how “the full power of technology can be deployed and offer efficient solutions.” Jourová’s remarks support the idea that the unprecedented situation the world is currently facing requires action that relies heavily on combining technology and healthcare.
Meanwhile, European privacy professionals are well aware of concerns about digitally tracing individuals to identify COVID-19 exposure while protecting personal data and reducing the chances of capturing unnecessary information. In response, they are developing decentralized privacy-preserving proximity tracing, which they claim in a TechCrunch article “offers greater protection against abuse and misuse of people’s data than apps which pull data into centralized pots.”
In the United States, Apple and Google are also working to develop their own widespread COVID-19 tracing systems. They know that successful tracking depends on individuals cooperating and allowing the tool to do its job. Without it, or with minimal participation, tracing will be ineffective. Therefore, they are working to implement processes designed to overcome lack of user involvement.
Preparing for the Future
Returning to business as usual will not happen overnight, and unforeseen tech-related issues, such as the sudden need for COBOL programmers in New Jersey, will continue to arise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we have seen, technology — specifically around healthcare — is key to ramping up treatment efforts, creating more-effective containment measures and eventually, developing a cure.
One example of technologists and medical professionals coming together to solve today’s problems occurred in the Seattle region, an original epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. Swedish Health Services, working in tandem with Seattle-based Microsoft, developed the COVID-19 Emergency Response App (CERA) to centralize data, offer real-time feedback and improve response efficiencies.
In the event that the world ever faces another pandemic in the future, lessons learned from the COVID-19 response, such as an early embrace of technology to track the spread, can be effectively implemented to minimize a tragic loss of life and significant business disruption. In the meantime, we can applaud some of the impressive technology and cybersecurity initiatives that are making a real difference in the healthcare industry.