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Q&A with Dr Claire Novorol, co-founder & Chief Medical Officer, Ada

Will the change in the uptake of digital solutions in healthcare continue after COVID-19?

With the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rapidly increasing, health and tech have joined forces to fight the pandemic. 

We’ve seen a surge in the uptake of digital tools, but will this stick? Dr Claire Novorol [pictured on the right], co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Ada Health, expects the landscape to be changed forever.

techUK: As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, countries around the world have adopted different approaches to tackle the pandemic. What role have you seen digital solutions play in these efforts?

Novorol: Remote consultations have surged, as practices that usually only see patients face-to-face have turned to doing consultations by phone and video. By restricting in-person visits to only the most essential, digital primary care solutions are really helping to limit patients coming in wherever possible, ultimately reducing the spread of the disease. In light of this, governments, health systems, tech companies and innovators around the world have rushed to create COVID-19 screeners to help people understand their risk of getting the disease, and what next steps they should take.

While health systems are facing huge demand from people needing care for COVID-19, other health problems that usually keep those systems extremely busy and close to capacity haven’t just gone away. With phone triage lines and primary care seeing huge increases in call volume from people with symptoms who are anxious, digital assessment and triage to help manage demand and navigate people to appropriate care is more important than ever - not just for those with respiratory symptoms but for any person with symptoms trying to understand what next steps they should take. This can help manage pressure on frontline services, reducing unnecessary consultations while ensuring those who do need urgent care seek it in a timely way. 

Many apps have also been created to enable contact tracing, using technologies such as Bluetooth and geolocation. Early versions of these proliferated in Asia first and have since been made freely available worldwide, and there are now significant efforts in Europe and elsewhere to offer similar tech. A combination of widely available testing and sophisticated contact tracing is seen as a way that we might be able to contain the virus once we get it down to low enough levels, and through that begin to lift some of the strict social distancing measures we are all currently having to take. 

techUK: As you mention, this is the approach that we’ve seen in countries like South Korea. But what are some of the benefits and risks of this?

Novorol: In terms of benefits, sophisticated disease surveillance, testing and contact tracing can help countries to contain the spread of COVID-19 by enabling them to quickly identify people who have been infected and have them self-isolate. Some countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, have done this to great effect and managed to contain the spread of the virus without requiring the extreme lockdown measures that have been needed elsewhere once widespread transmission is established. As these tools become more widely available, this may have a similar effect elsewhere.

At the same time, this level of widespread state surveillance introduces risks to citizens’ personal privacy, both online and offline. In Europe, these risks underpin the reluctance to take such measures, but there is also an understanding that these approaches are potentially key to containing the virus and reducing restrictions on daily life, with all of their resulting impacts on people’s livelihoods, mental health and the economy. So it will be important to find ways to enable accurate tracing while minimising privacy risks.

techUK: How has Ada responded to the COVID-19 crisis?

Novorol: Ada is regularly updated with the latest medical information, including on new conditions that haven’t been encountered before, so we immediately saw the importance of updating our Ada platform with COVID-19. We modelled COVID-19 in our knowledge base, so that, where appropriate, it would appear as a possibility in Ada’s condition suggestions. 

Building on this, we have now also developed a new COVID-19 assessment and screener, which launched this week and can be accessed for free via the Ada website. The tool is complementary to Ada’s main assessment, and is designed to ask questions about major, minor and emergency symptoms, personal risk factors and exposure risks. The screener provides individuals with information about their likelihood of being infected, severity, and what to do next, whether to seek care, and whether testing may be appropriate. The new global solution has been developed in line with international guidance and recommendations from renowned health institutions such as the World Health Organisation, and the team is continuing to monitor both international and national guidance on a daily basis, making rapid updates to the screener as appropriate. It is currently available in English and German, with other languages launching in coming days including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and more to follow. 

We’re also offering our solution to any health organisations around the world who want to link to or embed the screener in their website or app. It can be customised to the specific needs of our partners, including national guidance, specific phone numbers and links as needed, as well as navigation to appropriate care and test centres within their system.

Collaboration is critical right now, and we are working with a range of partners to support their COVID-19 efforts, by enabling a combination of COVID-19 screening, wider assessment with Ada and customised care navigation. 

techUK: Looking more widely, does the transformation that we're currently seeing point to signs that certain medical interactions will move to digital by default in the post-COVID-19 era?

Novorol: Over the past few years, digital and AI have become a central part of any conversation about health, health management and the effectiveness of care systems overall. 

The pandemic has accelerated this trend, and with health systems across the world under immense pressure, the need for digital health solutions is increasingly real and urgent. We are working closely with a number of health organisations and prospective partners who see the value that digital tools like Ada can bring, both now and in future. 

Now is the time for collaboration, and the health and tech industries are truly coming together to combat the pandemic. It’s an important shift, and it’s clear that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on the healthcare industry as a whole, with digital tools continuing to play an even more critical role. It’s likely that even with some shift back once this time is over, the trajectory of uptake and acceptance of digital health solutions will be altered forever. 


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