Combating pandemics – A view across APAC

“In APAC’s response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is absolutely no doubt that digitally enabled systems made for better outcomes,” said Dr Charles Alessi.
By Dean Koh
01:40 AM

At the BIO Asia–Taiwan 2020 Online + Live conference organized by global Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) and the Taiwan Bio Industry Organization (Taiwan BIO), Dr Charles Alessi, Chief Clinical Officer of HIMSS, was invited to share his insights about how various APAC countries successfully managed the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic based on his experience as the host of the HIMSS APAC series of webinars and virtual dialogues on tackling the pandemic.

He summarized these insights in seven key values or factors that encouraged success:

  • The value of a short term memory
  • The value of preparation – in practice, not in theory
  • The value of constant and trusted communicating with the population
  • The value of protecting the workforce and population
  • The value of managing the non-COVID conditions in a pandemic
  • The value of managing community care including care homes, not only hospitals
  • The value of already being on a journey towards digital transformation

The value of a short term memory

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In APAC, many countries were caught unprepared for pandemics such as SARS in 2002, H1N1 in 2009 and MERS in 2012. These pandemics had relatively little effects in the US and Europe, which meant that they ‘forgot’ how to manage them while APAC countries were more ready with their previous encounters with pandemics. In addition, APAC countries have to regularly deal with civil emergencies such as tsunamis and earthquakes, which really prepared the populations and systems to manage things very quickly.

The value of preparation – in practice, not in theory

Dr Alessi used the analogy of ‘flicking the switch’ with Taiwan as an example – as their response in late December 2019 and early January 2020 was unbelievable with rapid mobilization in hours, preparation at the airports for separate taxi routes and food for those in quarantine, specifically those coming out of Wuhan, China. 

Another example is South Korea which previously had experience with the MERS pandemic meant that they already had legislation in the statute books, which enabled them to introduce track and trace processes, whereby they moved from having the interests of privacy for the individual to the duties of citizens towards other citizens.

The value of constant and trusted communicating with the population

“It is important to be honest to a population, be trusted by a population and really have a single message – trusted messages and governments that were willing to walk the walk,” said Dr Alessi. New Zealand was cited as a remarkable example in terms of the consistency of the messaging in combating COVID-19 in the country. 

The value of protecting the workforce and population

Dr Alessi emphasized the importance of having adequate supplies of PPEs and protecting the workforce at hospitals against nosocomial infections, as well as ensuring the physical and mental well-being of frontline staff during the pandemic. 

The value of managing the non-COVID conditions in a pandemic

Managing non-COVID conditions can be really challenging for a health system as it not only has to deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases, it also have to manage people with non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes. A lot of countries got into difficulty because they completely stopped caring for that population and there are enormous opportunities for digital transformation in this space. 

The value of managing community care including care homes, not only hospitals

“Putting all the emphasis on hospitals and forgetting the value of care homes is really dangerous. We have seen real examples of this, particularly in Europe in terms of the number of excess deaths not at hospitals but at care homes, often from infections brought in by people who are really caring for them. 

So we really need to actually manage that process as well,” explained Dr Alessi. 

The value of already being on a journey towards digital transformation

All the ‘values’ that were provided earlier leads to the value of digital transformation as health systems cannot deliver a really good response unless a single version of truth exists – in which a good electronic medical record system can deliver. 

“The care of the population and the care of the workforce is wholly associated with us being able to assess a clinical record appropriately with us being able to manage a clinical record whereby a host of different people are intervening at the same time. How can you do that unless you have a digital solution?”

He added that in APAC’s response to the first wave of the pandemic, there is absolutely no doubt that digitally enabled systems made for better outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic is a pivot point where digital transformation has come of age, and Dr Alessi looks forward to a new age of ‘digital first’, and marrying digital technologies with face to face interaction which will hopefully always remain, the basis of new ways of doing things. 

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