Innovation in the time of COVID-19

Necessity is the mother of invention, and in no time is invention more necessary than during a global pandemic.  Starting with the drive-through testing clinics pioneered overseas that spread to the United States (big shout-out to the University of Washington for putting step-by-step instructions for how to start your own drive-through clinic on their COVID-19 resource site, to the “telephone booth” testing facilities in South Korea, there has never been a more critical time to innovate.

This morning, I awoke to a story about a Northern Italian hospital that ran out of a valve needed for their low-flow oxygen masks and reached out to local labs for help.  The response?  Cristian Fracassi, founder and CEO of a local 3D printing company, was able to redesign and produce the needed valve using a 3D printer in a matter of hours.  The next story I read was an urgent plea from physicians running out of N95 masks.  After sending a tweet to my meager Twitter following inquiring about 3D printing and N95 masks, I received an immediate reply from the U.K. with lists of people with 3D printers who are ready to help, as well as designs to make such masks, and a new hashtag to use to request help (#3DvsCOVID19).  While I do not believe that 3D printing is a cure-all for all the supply chain issues currently plaguing our health care system, I do believe this crisis will continue to fuel innovation.

As a pathologist, in addition to seeing innovation in where tests are performed – not to mention the tremendous job many of my colleagues have done in quickly developing tests for COVID-19 at their own institutions – I also see innovation in how tests are performed. As limited as our testing capacity still is in the United States, we are not dealing with a lack of electricity or lack of means of transporting specimens to a reference laboratory that other countries must contend with. In Senegal, scientists are working with U.K.-based laboratory Mologic to develop a hand-held point-of-care test that can provide results in minutes rather than hours or days.  Beyond testing, several health care start-ups, including Breath Research and Aidar Health, are developing physiologic testing methods – and in the case of Breath Research combining measurements with artificial intelligence – to track and monitor infected and high-risk patients and support remote monitoring.

While the technological applications of innovation sound futuristic to many, innovation certainly does not require tech-savviness.  Medical students at UCSF sidelined by the pandemic are crowdsourcing babysitting and other services needed by front-line health care professionals while their medical education is on temporary hold.  Rather than spending their time away from the hospital drowning their sorrows in beer and binge-watching Netflix, they are selflessly volunteering to help any way they can.  Other medical students are sharing guides on Twitter for health care workers with key phrases to use to communicate with patients about coronavirus in Spanish and Creole.

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States and elsewhere, innovation will continue to abound in ways many of us could have never even dreamed of.  We will also continue to see expressions of altruism and empathy that elevate our spirits in these days of social distancing.  In this time of uncertainty, may we find new ways to connect – remotely and by social media – to foster innovation and share stories of hope and inspiration.

Amy Baruch is a pathologist and can be reached on Twitter @amybaruch.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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