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Coronavirus Outbreak: Medical Staff Vulnerable, Telemedicine the Solution?

A patient speaking with his doctor via video conference (telemedicine).

The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has obliged medical workers to risk death in the hope of preventing further contamination and loss of life.

As of November 25, there have been 59,204,902 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally. As a result, hospitals are underequipped, undermanned, and often unprepared.

Overburdened Staff Lacks Critical Supplies

As more infections occur, hospitals across the globe are receiving more patients than they can handle. Waiting rooms are at capacity, available beds are few, and protective supplies are scarce.

In what has become a worldwide dilemma, healthcare workers are lacking the resources necessary to properly treat the influx of patients requiring expert care:

In China, one Wuhan doctor claimed that his staff has gone without protective equipment, medical test kits, and other supplies. Another mentioned how his staff is using disposable raincoats in the absence of protective suits. China is now producing twenty-times the number of surgical masks it made at the outset of the outbreak.

The U.S. FDA is reminding the general public that the Center for Disease Control does not recommend respirators or surgical masks for protection against respiratory diseases. This joint effort aims to free-up this equipment for healthcare personnel; over 35 percent of nurses report having no access to N95 respirators.

Across Europe, member states (Germany, France, Brussels) are imposing export bans on protective equipment. The European Commission recently announced that exports of surgical masks, gloves, suits, etc., would require authorization by Member States’ authorities.

Healthcare Workers Vulnerable to Infection, Unprepared

Perhaps more troubling than equipment shortages are reports of infection among those tasked with saving lives. Medical workers are extremely susceptible to exposure.

In China, 17,000 workers have been infected – six of whom have died. In Italy, 20 percent of healthcare professionals are infected, and in the U.S., two emergency doctors remain in critical condition.

The spread of infection among medical workers is no new phenomenon.

When the SARS outbreak of 2003 spread through the Scarborough Hospital in Toronto, medical staff accounted for nearly half of the infected population. Two nurses and a physician died. More recently, the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak killed more than eight percent of healthcare workers in Liberia.

Overburdened hospitals and clinics have also resulted in seemingly unprepared staff. A recent National Nurses United (NNU) survey of registered U.S. nurses showed that 71 percent claim their hospital has no “…plan in place to isolate a patient with a possible novel coronavirus infection.”

Over half of U.S. nurses report receiving no information from their employer on how to identify and react to possible cases of COVID-19.

Leveraging Telemedicine to Combat the Spread of Disease

Telemedicine is used to connect patients with physicians via video call, allowing for remote assessment of symptoms, and most critically, enabling the containment of COVID-19.

Patients are only directed to hospitals designated to treat the virus when necessary. If symptoms prove inconsistent with infectious disease, they can avoid unnecessary exposure and thus prevent the overcrowding of hospitals and clinics. Should a hospital visit be required, telemedicine can be used to minimize contact between patients and hospital personnel.

In some countries, patients and staff are already benefitting from this solution:

Chinese citizens will receive free consultations from telemedicine firms like JD Health and Ali Health until the end of the outbreak.

U.S. Congress recently passed a coronavirus relief bill enabling the coverage of telehealth services under Medicare.

Sheba Medical Center in Israel has worked with vendors to create fully telehealth-facilitated healthcare services, allowing patients to conduct self-examinations without staff nearby.

Essential to minimizing human contact, telemedicine can reduce the risk of life-threatening infection to both patients and healthcare workers. Those in need of expert care receive the streamlined diagnoses they need to begin treatment, while others have symptoms assessed without needlessly increasing the risk of infection by first visiting an ER.

The overall goal should be to leverage telemedicine applications not only for remote diagnoses but to limit contact between healthcare staff and those infected.

Simply put, telemedicine could be the key to contain COVID-19.