In a matter of a few short months, our entire lives have been upended by an enemy we cannot see and are just beginning to understand. A once record-breaking economy hovers on the brink of collapse. We have been driven from our schools and workplaces to seek the shelter of our homes.
And we don’t really know what to expect now or for the future. We don’t really know when this crisis will end or what our world will look like when it does.
But we’re not alone or unarmed in our efforts to know and to conquer our invisible enemy. Today’s big data and artificial intelligence technologies are already proving to be incredibly powerful weapons in our fight against the coronavirus.
Mining for (Data) Gold
One of the most frightening aspects of the novel coronavirus is just that — the fact that it is novel. It’s a pathogen we’ve never seen before. And that means that, at the start of the outbreak, not only did our bodies not have the antibodies to recognize or fight it, but our scientists did not have enough information to prevent or treat it.
Already, though, that has changed dramatically because of big data and, more specifically, because of data mining. Data mining allows enormous quantities of data and massive data sets to be analyzed electronically in order to identify significant patterns and important outliers. When it comes to COVID-19, the mining of big data has already yielded crucial information about how the virus behaves and whom it impacts.
But it’s not just information about the virus’s properties, behaviors, and vulnerabilities that big data is providing. It’s also helping us keep track of the health — or lack thereof — of the healthcare system itself. That includes monitoring the infrastructure, from its care providers to its supplies to its patients.
Big data allows administrators, healthcare workers, and government officials to assess how the pandemic is spreading, where the hot zones are, and how patients are faring. The information helps researchers and decision-makers to outline current needs and predict future ones.
For instance, the data can track hospital inventories electronically, locate confirmed and suspected cases using anonymized medical records, and apply predictive models to forecast where the next surge may be.
The current crisis in the personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilator supply chain has been illuminated by big data, for instance, showing which hospital systems are most affected and which are most at risk.
But it also allows decision-makers and government officials to track the progress of current efforts to ramp up production and quickly get the supplies to where they are needed most. Officials can easily monitor how long it takes to produce and ship this life-saving equipment, and in what quantities. They can also remotely monitor existing inventories, both at the supply side and the consumer side, to ensure that supply will be able to meet demand, even amid the surge.
The Power of AI
It’s not just big data that’s giving researchers, healthcare providers, and government officials the pathogen profile they need to defeat the virus. Artificial intelligence is also proving to be indispensable in the fight against COVID-19.
On the level of patient care, AI is demonstrating remarkable speed and accuracy in diagnosing disease, which is essential to ensure quick and appropriate treatment. One of the most significant challenges with COVID, for instance, is that it can be difficult to distinguish between it and other serious respiratory infections, which may cause a lethal delay in treatment.
And speaking of treatment, AI is also exceptionally beneficial in helping care providers formulate customized, evidence-based treatment plans. For vulnerable patients especially, AI’s brand of data-driven, individualized care can literally be life-saving.
COVID-19, like so many infectious diseases, is a particular threat to the elderly and the immunocompromised. Because COVID typically ravages the lungs, patients, and survivors of conditions like mesothelioma, asthma, and COPD must be particularly vigilant. Even the medications often used to treat these chronic health conditions can put patients at increased risk for pneumonia and other respiratory infections.
AI’s particular effectiveness in diagnosing disease and detecting signs of complications early, before they can evolve into a full-fledged medical crisis. That can provide peace of mind for high-risk patients wondering if their symptoms are allergies, the common cold, or COVID-19.
But AI isn’t just effective at the level of individual patients. It’s also remarkably effective from a public health standpoint. Israeli scientists, for instance, are using AI to identify current and potential hot zones.
When we understand where outbreaks are occurring or are likely to occur, we can dispatch healthcare providers and institute shelter-in-place measures in those areas. That also means that high-risk populations can avoid those areas whenever possible, including relocating chemotherapy and other medical procedures to hospitals and clinics in less affected areas.
It seems incredible that our world can be turned upside down by a microscopic organism that didn’t even exist a year ago. However, big data is equipping us every day with new and important knowledge about this ruthless adversary. Thanks to the power of data mining, researchers the world over are electronically poring through massive data sets to develop a comprehensive profile of the virus.
Big data has helped us better understand what the virus is, how it spreads, and what it does to its victims. Big data also enables us to monitor the health of our medical infrastructure, to ensure proper staffing and adequate supplies in hard-hit, or soon-to-be hit areas. Likewise, AI is a powerful tool for the diagnosis and treatment of disease, making it easier for patients and clinicians alike to more quickly and accurately differentiate between COVID and other illnesses. AI also allows healthcare providers to formulate customized, evidence-based treatment plans, no matter what the diagnosis may be. Finally, AI uses state-of-the-art analytics and machine learning not only to identify current coronavirus hot zones but to predict future ones, ensuring that public health and government intervention strategies target the people and places that need them most.
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