NMSU explores virus early warning system
Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
BY KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA
JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, New Mexico State University is partnering with a local telemedicine technology company to evaluate a system aimed at detecting COVID-19 symptoms among students and faculty.
Las Cruces-based Electronic Caregiver is deploying the system to monitor 100 study participants — 40 students and 60 faculty members — before they leave home and then pre-screening them every morning for signs of infection.
If the morning surveys detect any red flags,the system immediately tells the individual to seek medical advice, alerts health professionals about the issue and instantaneously offers direct online consultation to deter-
mine next steps, said project director Joe Tomaka, a professor in the Public Health Sciences Department at NMSU’s College of Health and Services.
“Everyone now at the university and everywhere else is trying to figure out what to do in a landscape that’s changing by the day,” Tomaka told the Journal. “This is a feasibility study to see if we can encourage symptom monitoring among people who have to go to campus and be around others. We want to detect symptoms early and get attention for it before they go to school to help avoid infection and encourage a safe return.”
The six-month project could show whether broad technology deployment can help change individual patterns of behavior, encouraging people to take the necessary precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“People say they’re monitoring for symptoms already, but we’re not sure how much that conscious effort actually happens,” Tomaka said. “This study will show if folks can do this on a daily basis.”
The study could help Electronic Caregiver develop effective methods to broadly deploy its technology among schools and workplaces as coronavirus lockdowns give way to masses of people returning to daily activities, chief clinical officer Timothy Washburn said.
“After six months, we’ll look at all the data to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what people liked and didn’t like to get better as we go,” Washburn said.
Electronic Caregiver is an example of how telemedicine has moved to the forefront during the pandemic, becoming an essential tool to safely provide health care, not just for COVID-19 cases, but for medical care in general.
Electronic Caregiver, which now has about 150 employees, had already developed technology for remote monitoring of people with chronic diseases. The company has invested about $55 million since launching in 2009 to build systems that provide 24/7 telemedicine technology to remotely track patients’ vital signs and automatically intervene in their care as needed.
The systems monitor temperature, oxygen levels, blood pressure, weight, glucose levels and even peak-f low spirometry, which measures how well the lungs are working as the patient inhales and exhales, Washburn said. It’s connected online to provide a continuous flow of patient information to caregivers with a push-button option for immediate, virtual consultation.
“We work to optimize health and minimize hospital admissions and costs by providing real-time data to doctors and providers,” Washburn said.
The company began deploying its technology in 2017 and has grown rapidly, now serving more than 100 medical practices across the U.S.
“It’s been an overnight success,” president Joseph Baffoe said. “We raised $70 million in capital from accredited investors to build out the company.”
But during the pandemic, demand for services has grown exponentially, as medical providers and patients seek safer ways to interact.
“Before, many elderly patients would say they didn’t need telemedicine, but now everyone sees the benefit,” Baffoe said. “It’s changing the health care paradigm.”
Zia Health Management, which partners with Electronic Caregiver to provide remote monitoring services, says its business has increased about 30% during the pandemic. It now works with 75 medical practices serving patients in seven states.
“There is no ‘normal’ coming back, so everyone’s looking to do a lot more telehealth,” said CEO Jeff Oldroyd. “It eliminates exposure risk and provides a safe method for patients to gain access to resources and professionals, while allowing doctors to get all the information they need about patients through remote monitoring.”
Perhaps the biggest change is patients’ willingness to use technology for their health care needs.
“The population needs to be more comfortable with telemedicine for it to work, and the coronavirus just kind of forced us into using technology more,” Oldroyd said. “How many grandparents are now using Zoom to talk with their kids and grandkids? Before, they wouldn’t even think of it.”
Measuring such behavioral changes is key to the NMSU/Electronic Caregiver study, which launched in June with 40 students and 60 faculty members.
“With the coronavirus, more people understand the importance of monitoring their health at home, and many are more willing to listen, take action and follow up,” Washburn said. “With the right system of encouragement, folks can be inspired to change behavior. … It’s not about pushing technology out, but keeping it relevant in an ever-changing and mobile world.”
For the study, the company tweaked its existing technology to focus on monitoring for the coronavirus, altering the software to provide morning surveys with specific questions about COVID-19 symptoms and providing hardware for participants to digitally check their temperatures and oxygen levels each day.
The system contains a cellphone SIM card for individuals to answer all daily survey questions via voice, and to directly connect with health professionals as needed.
Based on the answers, the system determines if there’s an issue and then alerts project-related health professionals to discuss if additional steps are needed “It’s a three-tiered process to pre-screen individuals for signs of infection, alert people and intervene,” Washburn said. “It could help catch more folks before they leave their home, and hopefully flatten the (infection) curve.”
For NMSU, it’s all about creating a safe environment on campus.
“That’s the real aim,” said Tomaka, NMSU’s project director. “It’s a campuswide effort for a safe return to school and work.”