London

New online tool to give London doctors, patients an edge in fight against COVID-19

London area health professionals are the first in the country to use a new online tool that promises to allow patients, doctors and health authorities collaborate in the fight against the coronavirus with the aim of keeping the system from being overwhelmed. 

The online tool gives patients and healthcare providers the unprecedented ability to collaborate

The coronavirus outbreak has made everyone understandably anxious. Now, a new online tool hopes to allow unprecedented collaboration between patients and healthcare providers in the London region. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

London area health professionals are the first in the country to use a new online tool that promises to allow patients, doctors and health authorities collaborate and share information in the fight against the coronavirus on an unprecedented scale. 

The announcement was made on Monday, the same day the province confirmed 78 new cases of the illness, bring the total number of cases in Ontario to 503. The new numbers were followed by a sweeping order from Premier Doug Ford, instructing all non-essential businesses to close in an effort to help contain the spread of the disease. 

As the virus infects more people, the designers say the software will allow local health authorities to better see the number and severity of COVID-19 cases in the London region in real time from the patients themselves, while at the same time, empowering patients by putting a doctor's knowledge directly into their hands. 

"We all have a common enemy," said Dr. Daniel Pepe, a London family physician with the London-Lambeth Medical Clinic who worked on developing the software along with the Middlesex-London Health Unit, the region's hospitals and Toronto-based software maker InputHealth. 

'This is a shield in front of our healthcare system'

Dr. Daniel Pepe is a family physician in London, Ont. (Daniel Pepe/LinkedIn)

"What it's doing is it's linking us in a more integrated fashion and helping us share and spread information rapidly and also giving patients the ability to connect with their family physicians they trust. So we're leveraging all those good qualities of the primary care system by just putting them in one place."

"We've seen what happens elsewhere in the world when people don't come together and work together," he said. "This is like a shield in front of our healthcare system." 

The problem with the coronavirus is that if you get it, there's no telling how bad it could hit you. While some patients will get life-threatening symptoms, most people will have moderate, mild or even no symptoms at all. The result is everyone is worried they might have a life-threatening condition, even when they don't, which causes them to seek the best care immediately. 

"It's hard to know," said Anna Float, a London software developer whose coding experience helped inform the tool's design from a patient's point of view. 

'Legitimate fear'

Anna Foat is a software developer whose resume includes BlackBerry, IBM and Communitech. She currently sits on the board of the London Tech Alliance. (Supplied)

"I keep reading how so many people are asymptomatic carriers and I keep thinking, 'man, I don't have a fever, but I have a cough,'" she said. "Is that good or bad? Am I overreacting? It's a legitimate fear."

The tool will not only allow a patient to self-diagnose by answering a series of questions, it will also direct them to the appropriate care based on their answers, which could be as mild as waiting it out at home, a follow up with their doctor, or even a trip to the emergency room. 

At the same time, health authorities will use the data to see the healthcare system in real-time, how the public is reacting, how many cases they're managing, how severe they are and whether parts of the system are becoming overloaded.

"Virtual visits, using technology, integrated healthcare charts, all of those things are possible, we just need the political will to make them." 

"This idea of secure collaboration happened everywhere else 10, 15, 20 years ago," Foat said. "Healthcare is unique. There hasn't been an impetus like this to drag [the system] into the 21st century."

So far, 154 London doctors and nurse practioners have signed onto the system, which will also share information with the Middlesex-London Health Unit and the city's two hospitals, London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph's Healthcare. 

The idea is that, with the combined data of all the patients who use the tool, health officials will be able to visualize what's happening across the region in order to better coordinate their efforts, according to Dr. Puneet Seth, a family physician and the president of InputHealth, the Toronto-based company that built the software platform. 

Empowering patients 

Dr. Puneet Seth is a family physician and the president of Toronto-based healthcare software maker InputHealth. (Puneet Seth/Twitter)

"Within our platform, there's a powerful analytics engine that will allow you to visualize the responses, potential probable cases, how individuals are doing and give an incredible amount of data that will be valuable for public health officials," he said. 

Being able to see and analyze what's happening in real-time should, in theory, be able to prevent the kind of tragic situation that's unfolding in Italy, where the country's hospitals have been inundated by severe cases and people are dying by the hundreds every day. 

Seth said the online tool will not only help support patients through a complicated healthcare system, it will also bring their concerns to the appropriate places and provide the right kind of follow up. 

"That kind of comprehensive model is what we think is really important for urgent population health management," he said. "On one hand it's inspiring, but at the same time we're concerned."

Seth said hopefully it will empower people to help themselves and help others deal with the crisis effectively. 

"At the end of the day the public and individuals do have control to be able to curb what's happening."

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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