Staying connected with our most vulnerable during pandemic
Three is helping the HSE develop IT solutions to provide healthcare services remotely
Ken McGrath of Three Ireland: ‘There is the potential to deliver a transformative shift in healthcare delivery’
The rapid deployment of new IT solutions and the digitalisation of numerous existing services have been a central and critically important element of the health service’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.
“It’s definitely been an interesting few months,” says Ken McGrath, head of public sector sales with Three Ireland. “When you think of the nature of the health system and where it was coming from, what has been achieved is amazing. The size of the system and its natural conservatism mean that change tends to be slow, but the HSE shifted almost overnight to things like flexible and home working.”
And this wasn’t just a case of sending people home with a laptop.
“It’s not that straightforward,” McGrath points out. “They are dealing with very sensitive data so security is paramount. They are also dealing with very complicated systems. We helped the HSE with that through the provision of mobile broadband and other solutions.”
Another example is the Healthmail secure communications platform.
“Health professionals use this to communicate with each other without needing to rely on paper records,” McGrath explains. “Until this year, it was operated on HSE premises but in 2020 it moved to the cloud. It was migrated to Microsoft Azure, which offered the scalability, security, and reliability required for a robust critical service. The timing could not have been better. As the restrictions began to hit, there was a rapid approval to allow GPs to share prescriptions through Healthmail.”
Capacity was the most visible benefit.
“Because it is now in the cloud, the platform has the capacity to cope with much higher volumes of messages. In April 2020 alone, it handled more emails than it did in the whole of 2019 – 670,000 compared to 630,000. It now has more than 7,000 users and it couldn’t have coped with an increase of that scale without the move to the cloud.”
According to McGrath, this is an excellent application of the use of technology to solve a public health risk. “By carrying prescriptions, Healthmail reduces the need for patients to visit doctors’ surgeries or hospitals to collect prescriptions in person, minimising unnecessary contact and reducing the risk of spreading the virus.”
Three also worked with the health service and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on the provision of valuable data analytics.
“We were able to interpret anonymised mobile data from the Three network to understand people’s movement between urban and rural locations and spot potential clusters. This gave the health services and Nphet valuable support in mapping the earliest stages of Covid-19’s spread in Ireland.”
This is a simple but highly effective technology that empowers people to live in their own homes for longer
The Internet of Things (IoT) has also played its part. “Covid-19 also made us very aware of vulnerable groups, and here again, digital technology offers ways to connect with them,” says McGrath. “Back in April, the HSE approached us about a year-long project to look into ways of communicating with mentally vulnerable, the elderly, and those living with chronic health conditions. Using mobile devices like Amazon Echo Show and running on the Three network, it allowed healthcare professionals to keep up regular contact with patients even when home visits were not possible.”
The e-smart (support, maintain, assess, recovery and treatment) project involves using an electronic hub for consultation and for helping patients with routines and loneliness. At-risk patients in the northwest of the country have had these systems placed their homes.
“Three is supporting the connectivity needed to deliver this telehealth solution that assists people who are vulnerable and at risk from physical and mental health deterioration due to self-isolation as efficiently and effectively as possible through the use of a visual, touchscreen and hands-free voice-activated system,” McGrath adds.
Another pilot project involved the installation of IoT sensors in 40 homes in Dublin.
“The sensors record simple, everyday activities like turning on a light switch, opening a door, or boiling a kettle to make a cup of tea,” he says. “These are typical indicators that the person living there is mobile and active. If one of the sensors didn’t register activity at a certain time of the day, it would trigger an alert with a public health nurse or the person’s family member to visit and check on the person.
“This is a simple but highly effective technology that empowers people to live in their own homes for longer and eases the pressure on the acute care system,” McGrath adds. “We have already worked on testing this kind of technology on Arranmore island. Now, with the imminent arrival of 5G with its increased capacity to handle these kinds of IoT projects at scale, there is the potential to deliver a transformative shift in healthcare delivery.”