Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweiss faced a serious and morbid conundrum during his time at the Vienna General Hospital in 1847. Women were becoming fatally ill a short while after giving birth and Dr. Semmelweiss found that the mortality rate for maternity wards across the continent were alarmingly high. He put forth a theory that doctors doing the deliveries were probably contaminating the new mothers with bacteria from their other patients and his solution was revolutionary: wash your hands. Tragically, the world was not ready for Semmelweiss’ methods despite his maternity ward seeing a drastic decrease in disease after implementing regular hand washing procedures and he died in an insane asylum in 1865. Despite his despondent state at his death, Semmelweiss’ discovery is now considered a basic tenant of common sense and he effectively revolutionized how the world views disease.
The public is often resistant to change — but there are instances where small changes can save millions of lives. The world has come a long way since the mid-19th Century, but we’ve got a long ways to go yet before adequate health care is accessible to the global community. And while sanitation issues are gradually improving globally, there remain other barriers to improved global healthcare. One of the most pressing issues today is the lack of funding and modern technology in developing nations. With the most recent and media-saturated outbreak of Ebola in West Africa claiming nearly 5,000 lives at the time this article was written, the discussion of fighting infectious diseases rises to the forefront of the national discourse and new ways for fighting the disease as well as other potential epidemics are being crafted by concerned citizens and enthusiastic entrepreneurs.
In our modern era of wireless internet and smartphones, the issue of privacy has come up time and time again. While many may feel uneasy at the idea of potentially being tracked and profiled through their devices, this technology has a huge advantage when combating epidemics. Nearly every healthcare provider has converted their paper records into Electronic Healthcare Records (EHR) and these records can be instantly shared with the appropriate hospitals and organizations. Due to the fairly recent outbreaks of different diseases like Ebola, MERS, and West Nile Virus, the healthcare industry has added a mandatory travel record to patients’ EHRs helping health professionals identify at-risk individuals and quickly identify the disease if someone is showing symptoms. Given how contagious and deadly some of these diseases can be, it is absolutely necessary to communicate these vital pieces of information as quickly as possible.
The Front Line
In a more concrete role, nurses and other healthcare professionals who work on the front line of disease expose themselves to innumerable risks as they provide care for patients stricken with severe illnesses. In the case of Ebola, nurses and physicians are at an extremely high-risk for infection. Despite the now well-known nature of Ebola, mistakes and sloppy technique have still resulted in hundreds of cases of transmission from patient to caretaker. As a result, an American company Xenex has produced a robot that roves around hospitals and other areas and disinfects them, and while it uses a UV technology that may not completely eradicate the Ebola contagion, it presents a viable alternative to putting human beings at risk of infection. There are many advantages to using robots in medical crisis situations…Of course, this raises an interesting point about the value of human contact for the morale of a patient — but that is perhaps a discussion better suited for another article.
With the advent of advanced analytics being used in sports and politics, its applicability in the realm of infectious disease makes obvious sense. According to the Vice President of software company Modus Operandi Eric Little, “this is a never-ending battle. The best you can do is try to see the trends, try to predict, keep up on your research and try to integrate your research.”
Health care IT has propelled the healthcare market, as innovations in the health technology space continue to alter the landscape of the entire industry. Familiarity with modern technology is increasingly the main factor for the success of both experts in health technology and electronic records systems —and the noticeably higher salaries available to IT workers (per a recent survey by HealthITjobs.com) reflects how aggressively hospitals and disaster relief organizations are pushing to recruit specialists who are proficient with the most modern health care technology.
IBM has been developing software that they’ve recently donated to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that helps track Ebola cases using both official data and patient reported data that they send via text message. IBM then maps this data which in turn is used by the CDC and other aid organization to see what geographic areas are hit the worst and identify the variables causing it. Already, villages affected by Ebola have been identified that need more clean water and in many cases, better body disposal.
Looking at the past, namely the 1918 Influenza epidemic and the famous Black Plague, it’s clear that being able to track and contain contagious individuals is key to curtailing a potential epidemic. The new methods and technologies being developed today are key to humanity’s fight against infectious disease, and with luck they may send Ebola the way of Smallpox, Polio, and other historically destructive contagions.