A privacy-friendly and human-centric post-COVID world

Even as IDC projects that worldwide IT spending will decline by 2.7% in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has been touted as possibly the main driver to spur digital transformation globally. Technology’s role to pave a way through and beyond this crisis has risen to the forefront as we race to understand, contain, and end the virus spread as quickly as possible.

From contact tracing applications to telehealth platforms, IoT innovations developed and tapped upon in this pandemic are transforming the way we approach today’s public health challenges, while preparing us for the future. Facing many unknowns in fighting COVID-19, nations are relying on technology to support real-time acquisition, analysis and sharing of patient data. Healthcare institutions look to IoT deployments to improve resource use and care quality, and enhance their ability to fulfil the mission of patient care.

To meet the hospitals’ challenging operational demands, having more visibility of, as well as more efficient and effective ways to manage, resources is key for a longer-term healthcare strategy. The use of IoT in healthcare can come in handy – such as Wifi-based active RFID tags to help track patient movement, and manage the utilization and inventory level of medical equipment. In-patient processes can be further automated with ICT solutions that can manage and provide visibility of bed resources and the patient’s status, from the admission to discharge stages. When the ICT systems are linked, timely and appropriate information, such as patient infection, can be shared to ensure proper insolation and treatment.  

Yet while as we learn new things about the pandemic relief efforts each day, some concerns of old return. Resources are stretched further as examples in various countries show how a new wave of infections can resurface, and patients can take a longer-than-expected recovery time. The psychological impact of COVID-19 grows as the battle against the virus extends to the long term, with countries implementing a “new normal” state of vigilance. The heightened anxiety towards the virus is magnifying the distrust for technology, as efforts to collect data to contain the pandemic threatens to shift the balance between public safety and personal privacy. Cybersecurity concerns have also surfaced for businesses and individuals, as Kaspersky observed a sharp rise of brute-force attacks targeting Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) endpoints since the onset of the pandemic, as quarantines and stay-at-home orders saw companies deploy more RDP systems online. 

In Singapore, its Government Technology Agency (GovTech) is tapping on IT, developing apps to keep track of COVID cases more efficiently, and crowd-sourcing for digital solutions to fight COVID-19. While the Government has acknowledged that there will be some privacy concerns, yet it would be necessary against the benefits and safety of the general population. 

Drawing Lessons from Old, for Privacy Matters

The need to address personal privacy while providing important insights through ICT solutions is not new in the healthcare industry, and can certainly be achieved. Patient confidentiality and privacy is of utmost importance to ensure that the patient has confidence and trust in the healthcare system and the service providers that serve them, during and beyond the recovery process. The system, guidelines and principles in place to safeguard the confidentiality and privacy of the patient sets the context to maintain this confidence and trust. Without this, it will be an uphill task to contain infectious diseases like COVID-19, such as in managing people who are placed under quarantine order. The fear of pressure from society at large, or the loss of dignity/privacy may deter people from a full and honest declaration of their health status, and hamper containment efforts.

Learnings can be gleaned from solutions to support better quality of life in a fast-ageing population, such as Singapore’s. Privacy-oriented wellness and health monitoring services to improve the quality of care delivered to the elderly are available. One solution uses sound analysis technology to remotely monitor and alert families and caregivers on unusual events that require assistance, such as falls, without recording conversations to protect the residents’ privacy.

Fast forward to the pandemic – how can we apply these lessons to maintain the quality of life for already stressed patients and suspected cases? The use of wearable tech devices can help to replace the installation of cameras at residences, keeping track of the individual’s location with clear parameters on the insights required without collecting other personal data.

For technology alone is not enough to address the challenges faced in practical deployment and acceptance in it being used. Take for example, monitoring a patient at home with the use of IoT devices. There is a need to ensure clear segregation and protection of the patient data collected, which is likely to be transmitted over the Internet, and managed on Cloud. Multiple stakeholders and touchpoints, ranging from the Clinical IoT device or mobile device, to the providers of the Cloud, Application Platform, and Security Monitoring services, will need to work together to ensure that the information is secure.

Most importantly, the technology and solutions will not proliferate and will be difficult to sustain if the adoption rate is low. To gain the community’s trust, efforts to demonstrate direct health benefits from healthcare solutions are necessary. The government can work with the industry to come up with a scheme to encourage widespread adoption. A successful recent application is a nation-wide Health Challenge by a Singapore Government agency to promote daily exercising. The community was encouraged to sign up for the mobile application and start with a free exercise tracker, and prize coupons were made available for redemption upon reaching specific targets.

Beyond Fear, Towards Trust

We hear this more than ever now – that fear will kill us before the virus does. The ethics of technology need to be part of our COVID-19 relief efforts, as technology offers pragmatic possibilities to address resource limitations, and shortens the time it takes for us to know our enemy.

Winning this war with a human-centric approach, with the privacy and dignity of every individual in mind, will not only let us emerge stronger and better, it will also prepare us to take advantage of ICT to not just recover from the effects of the pandemic situation but leapfrog into a new era of growth and possibilities when the pandemic is over.