A version of this story appeared in STAT’s Health Tech newsletter. Click here to subscribe.
They’re donating millions of masks from their stockpiles. They’re teaming up with hospitals to share and analyze data. And they’re offering up their computing capabilities to help researchers.
Tech companies large and small are coming forward as crucial players in the response to the coronavirus crisis. Increasingly maligned over the last few years amid a series of privacy scandals, the industry is earning praise from admirers who believe it’s stepping up. But as the pandemic continues, these companies may face pointed questions about where they’re putting their resources.
Among them: Can these efforts be scaled to help people beyond tech companies’ backyards? And is the tech industry prioritizing efforts that reflect what frontline clinicians want and need most?
The past few days have brought a flurry of announcements from tech companies volunteering to join the wartime mobilization against the virus. On Monday, the Big Three cloud vendors — the lucrative businesses at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft devoted to storing and analyzing data for customers — announced that they’d join the Trump administration’s new COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. That same day, Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce said they’d join the new data-pooling Covid-19 Healthcare Coalition.
Those sweeping efforts could help address the crisis nationwide and perhaps across the globe.
Still, even as the pandemic accelerates around the world, much of the response from tech companies has remained focused in their backyards: Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles. Those places also happen to be several of the regions in the U.S. that have been hardest hit by outbreaks so far.
Amazon’s arm providing medical care to its employees is picking up and delivering at-home testing kits as part of a new research effort; for now, that’s only happening in Seattle’s King County.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — the philanthropic vehicle launched by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, the pediatrician Priscilla Chan — has been working to help ramp up Covid-19 testing in the Bay Area.
And when Alphabet’s life sciences unit Verily launched a website on March 16 to triage suspected Covid-19 cases and direct them to testing sites, it was initially only available to residents of two counties in Silicon Valley. (On Monday, it rolled out to two more California counties beyond Silicon Valley, with the goal of continuing to expand more broadly.)
Even a grand gesture from billionaire Elon Musk may be relatively local in scope. He ordered more than 1,200 ventilators from China and had them shipped to Los Angeles, where he lives and where his company SpaceX is based. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Monday that Musk was working with a hospital association to distribute the ventilators; it’s not clear yet whether they’ll be handed out to hospitals only in Los Angeles, only in California, or beyond.
These local efforts have promise, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to expand to other parts of the country that aren’t home to generous benefactors.
Nor is it apparent whether tech companies are prioritizing the resources that will be most desperately needed in the coming days by frontline doctors and nurses in hospitals inundated with Covid-19 patients.
So what will be on these hospitals’ wishlists?
In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Daniel Horn, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, called on Big Tech to “rapidly build and scale a cloud-based national ventilator surveillance platform which will track individual hospital I.C.U. capacity and ventilator supply across the nation in real-time.”
Another one of the most immediate demands is for technology to enable remote monitoring of patients.
Health systems need to keep Covid-19 patients with relatively mild presentations of the disease out of the hospital — and to discharge those who do need to be there as soon as possible. They also need to minimize the number of clinicians who need to closely interact with each hospitalized Covid-19 patient.
Keeping as many non-Covid-19 patients out of their facilities as possible also allows hospitals to free up beds, limit the spread infection, and preserve dwindling supplies of protective equipment.
To do that, hospitals are taking a two-pronged approach: Many are quickly ramping up use of video and phone consults, while also considering partnerships with companies that make mobile electrocardiograms, digital stethoscopes, and software devices designed to monitor blood pressure, temperature and respiration. Those remote monitoring tools would make it easier for physicians to care for patients while still keeping them out of the hospital when possible.
“Video visits are going to help, but we may eventually need more sophisticated technology coupled with machine learning that can predict patient [deterioration],” said Raj Khandwalla, director of digital therapeutics for the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “If we start to see pandemic levels of this disease, we may need to preserve health care resources for only those patients who need them.”
If that happens, the pressure on tech companies to step up even more will be enormous. Will they be able to heed the call?
Casey Ross contributed reporting.