As COVID-19 accelerates digital health innovation, 'Who will we leave behind?'

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A Kinsa thermometer. Photo by: Kinsa via Facebook

Before public health officials caught on to the extent of the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, smart thermometer company Kinsa Health noticed surprising trends in its data.

Because data is uploaded immediately after people use the thermometer and available for free to scientists, “We saw febrile illness was up in many parts of the country, and that's not what we expected,” Kinsa founder and CEO Inder Singh said Tuesday at CES, an annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association. “We caught COVID-19 everywhere in the country three weeks before cases started piling up in states.”

While Kinsa is known for its smart thermometers, the company’s stated mission is to stop the spread of illness by using these devices as part of an early warning system to prevent future pandemics.

The pandemic has fast-tracked innovation in the virtual health care system. CES highlighted technologies that are analyzing large amounts of data, tracking the transmission of COVID-19 and other diseases, and diagnosing and treating patients remotely. But the more benefits these innovations bring, the more urgency there is to identify models that ensure global access to digital health tools.

Kinsa thermometers, and other technologies on display at CES, are making health care more affordable and convenient, at least for people who can access these devices and the connectivity that makes them such valuable tools.

“We’re deconstructing the traditional delivery model,” said Lee Schwamm, vice president of digital health virtual care at Mass General Brigham in Massachusetts, during the event.

With connected products, including home testing and remote patient modeling tools, there is an opportunity to transition away from the model in which people go to the doctor or the hospital when they notice they are sick and toward early detection of disease.

“We’re going to move forward,” Schwamm said. “The question is: Who will we leave behind?”

Big challenges stand in the way of these advancements in digital health technology benefiting everyone, including structural inequities in health care and the digital divide. “Increasingly, if you don’t have broadband, you’re in trouble,” Schwamm said. “A smartphone is necessary but insufficient.”

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More than half of the world’s households lack access to the internet, with women and vulnerable populations disproportionately excluded.

“The COVID-19 response has relied heavily on digital tools to provide safe care via telemedicine, to coordinate the response to the global pandemic, and to keep people connected to each other even when we must be physically apart,” Skye Gilbert, executive director at Digital Square, an effort to help countries strengthen their national digital health systems, said in an email to Devex. “The digital divide has never been more of a threat to health equity than now.”

COVID-19 has accelerated conversations on how to close this gap, with one example being the conversations between the World Health Organization and Silicon Valley tech companies including Facebook, Google, and Apple.

“But as we learned with the digital innovations that failed to scale following the 2014 Ebola crisis … if we don’t solve for the market failures that are currently creating the digital divide, the public-private partnerships will not endure past COVID-19,” Gilbert said.

Digital Square, led by the global health NGO PATH, has formed a public-private partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Tableau Foundation, and Microsoft to further understand these market failures and how to address them.

“We will be publishing our findings later this year, and hope they can be used to help create the market conditions that will finally, and forever, close the digital divide,” Gilbert said.

At CES, Singh of Kinsa said that the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated not only the power of telemedicine, but also how important early warning systems are to prevent disease outbreaks.

“The digital divide has never been more of a threat to health equity than now.”

— Skye Gilbert, executive director, Digital Square

“Unless you have an early warning system, you’ll never get ahead, and that flame of an outbreak will turn into an inferno, because by the time the health care system sees it, it’s too late,” he said.

COVID-19 underscored how underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by pandemics, and Singh told Devex he hopes this realization will result in “greater innovation for those communities.”

Kinsa is exploring how to tackle the problem of access, sending 1 out of every 4 thermometers to underserved communities, said Singh, who previously served as executive vice president at the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

“In order to bring health tech benefits to lower- and middle-income countries, Kinsa needs to first ensure that this model is proven, sustainable, and growing in the U.S,” Singh told Devex. “Our hope is to get into middle-income countries within the next few years.”

Kinsa has partnered with sponsors to fund the giveaway of its thermometers to families in underserved communities, and Singh said other tech companies might consider a similar model to ensure more global access to their digital health products.

Update, January 20, 2020: This article has been updated to reflect that the Tableau Foundation supports Digital Square.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.