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Google Builds a New Tablet for the Fight Against Ebola

Google Builds a New Tablet for the Fight Against Ebola | Healthcare and Technology news | Scoop.it

Jay Achar was treating Ebola patients at a makeshift hospital in Sierra Leone, and he needed more time.

This was in September, near the height of the West African Ebola epidemic. Achar was part of a team that traveled to Sierra Leone under the aegis of a European organization called Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders. In a city called Magburaka, MSF had erected a treatment center that kept patients carefully quarantined, and inside the facility’s high-risk zone, doctors like Achar wore the usual polythene “moon suits,” gloves, face masks, and goggles to protect themselves from infection.

With temperatures rising to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Achar could stay inside for only about an hour at a time. “The suit doesn’t let your skin breathe. It can’t,” he says. “You get very, very hot.” And even while inside, so much of his time was spent not treating the patients, but merely recording their medical information—a tedious but necessary part of containing an epidemic that has now claimed an estimated 10,000 lives. Due to the risk of contamination, he would take notes on paper, walk the paper to the edge of the enclosure, shout the information to someone on the other side of a fence, and later destroy the paper. “The paper can’t come out of the high-risk zone,” he says.

Looking for a better way, he phoned Ivan Gayton, a colleague at the MSF home office in London. Gayton calls himself a logistician. He helps the organization get stuff done. In 2010, he tracked down someone at Google who could help him use its Google Earth service to map the locations of patients during a cholera epidemic in Haiti. As part of its charitable arm, Google.org, the tech giant runs a “crisis response team” that does stuff like this. So, after talking to Achar, Gayton phoned Google again, and the company responded with a new piece of tech: a computer tablet that could replace those paper notes and all that shouting over the fence.

The Tablet You Dunk in Chlorine

Over the next few months, drawing on employees from across the company, Google helped build a specialized Android tablet where Achar and other doctors could record medical info from inside the high-risk zone and then send it wirelessly to servers on the outside. Here in everyday America, a wireless tablet may seem like basic technology. But in the middle of an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which offers limited internet and other tech infrastructure, it’s not.



The tablet is encased in polycarbonate, so that it can be dipped in chlorine and removed from the facility, and the server runs on battery power. “There was a real need for this,” says Dr. Eric D. Perakslis, part of the department of biomedical informatics at the Harvard Medical School, who has closely followed the project. “It’s very impressive, and it’s unique.”

The system is now used by Achar and other doctors in West Africa, where patients are still being treated. During the testing phase, the server ran off a motorcycle battery, but now it includes its own lithium ion batteries, much like those in your cell phone, which can charge via a portable generator. Then, inside the high-risk zone, Achar can not only wirelessly send data over the fence, but also readily access information he didn’t have before, including a patient’s latest blood test results. Plus, after dipping the thing in chlorine for ten minutes, he can take it outside the zone and continue working with it after removing his moon suit.

Yes, the Ebola epidemic appears to be wane. But the system provides a blueprint for future. After catching wind of the project, Perakslis says, he’s working to help MSF “open source” the technology, freely sharing the software code and hardware designs with the world at large. The hope is that system could also be used to battle others epidemics, including cholera outbreaks, and perhaps help with medical research, including clinical trials for drug-resistant tuberculosis. “You can think of other highly toxic environments, even laboratory environments, where this could really be helpful,” Perakslis says.

Fighting Disease Like a Tech Company

But it could also provide a path to all sorts of other new technologies for fighting disease and illness in developing countries. If tech is open source, you see, you can not only use it for free, but modify it. This is actually what MSF and Google themselves did in creating their system for the Ebola wards. In fashioning the software that runs on the tablet and server, they built atop an existing open source medical records tool called OpenMRS. One technology is just a starting point for another.

What’s more, says Ivan Gayton, the project offers a lesson in how organizations like MSF should operate. In the past, they operated according to carefully organized hierarchies of employees. And they were forced to use what came down from the big software and hardware sellers. But the tablet project was an almost ad-hoc collaboration. Achar phoned Gayton. Gayton phoned Google. Soon, Google sent about a dozen employees to London, including Google Drive project manager Ganesh Shankar, who was living in Australia. Later, Gayton says, MSF roped in several other volunteer techies from outside the organization, including a 19-year-old gaming entrepreneur.

Finally, various parts of the team, spanning multiple organizations, flew down to Sierra Leone to test and deploy the system in the real world. Organizations like MSF don’t typically work in this way, Gayton explains. And they should.

“We’ve learned new ways of doing things,” he says. “In the past, we used the Roman-legion, hierarchical, triangle structure. But Google and the tech volunteers we work with organize in different ways—ways more like what you see with open source projects like Linux, with more or less one manager and then a bunch of equal peers. That can have profound implications for the humanitarian field.”


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Eduardo Vaz's curator insight, March 25, 2015 10:33 AM

#Google created a new #Tablet, but you won't be seeing it on store shelves. #ygk

Jared Stewart's curator insight, March 27, 2015 3:12 AM

A application of modern Tablet technology to help the fight against the Ebola Virus. It also shows the possibilities of this technology being used in future epidemics.

Louisa ROQUE's curator insight, April 23, 2015 5:59 AM

When technology is useful.

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30-Under-30er's Google Glass For Doctors Startup Raises $16 Million

30-Under-30er's Google Glass For Doctors Startup Raises $16 Million | Healthcare and Technology news | Scoop.it

Google Glass startup Augmedix announced today that it has closed a $16 million Series A funding round, bringing its total funding up to $23 million.

Augmedix – whose cofounder, Pelu Tran, was featured on this year’s 30 Under 30 list for healthcare — is a service for doctors that automates the tedious record-keeping process using Google's GOOGL +1.75% smart headgear. The idea is simple: doctors wearing Glass can use Augmedix to verbally enter data into or call up a patient’s electronic health record, drastically shortening the time it takes to do the paperwork that takes up a third of a physician’s day.

The service is already used at 35 sites in 10 different states, and the  nearly three-year-old company is angling for more. Tran hopes that the funding round, led by seed investors Emergence Capital and DCM Ventures, will help the company grow tenfold in the coming year. “We’re hoping to be able to grow even further thanks to our incredible customer demand,” he says.

But even with the new investments and substantial customer base, there’s reason for concern. Since its release to select members of the public in 2013, Glass has garnered plenty of criticism from all corners, from consumers who want more capabilities from the product to business owners concerned about violations of privacy.

Still, Tran isn’t all that concerned. “We focus on providing a service delivered via Google Glass and I think that right now Google Glass is doing quite well in enterprise,” he says. “If you look at Glass as a consumer and you look at what tablets are like and what smartphones are like, if you look at the early days, you see that they started in enterprise. For the next couple of years, that will be Glass.”

Augmedix is one of ten companies Google lists as certified Glass at Work partners, a group of companies focused on Glass-based enterprise services. More than half of them list healthcare as a major focus. Augmedix may not have a monopoly on doctors, but Tran is happy to be in on the ground floor of a technology he’s sure will soon be everywhere.

“If Glass was truly not doing well,” he points out after last weekend’s CES trade show, “I don’t think you’d see 30 competitors scattered throughout Las Vegas.”


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More hospitals are trying Apple HealthKit than Google Fit

More hospitals are trying Apple HealthKit than Google Fit | Healthcare and Technology news | Scoop.it

Apple is moving its health care products into hospitals far faster than rivals Google and Samsung, claims a new report from Reuters. The news agency says that 14 of the 23 top hospitals it contacted were already trialling pilot programs with Apple’s HealthKit service to monitor chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Google and Samsung, meanwhile, were reportedly only beginning talks to secure partners for their own health-monitoring systems, Google Fit and S Health. Reuters added that doctors were especially "eager" to try Google Fit.

Apple has been more focused on medical data — google is looking at fitness

This disparity between the companies is significant but not unexpected. When Apple unveiled HealthKit in June last year it focused heavily on its emerging partnerships with hospitals and research groups like the Mayo Clinic. Google, meanwhile, has already tried its hand at creating a depositary for medical records accessible by patients and doctors alike: Google Health launched in 2008 and closed in 2013. By comparison, the company’s new Google Fit program is far more focused on nutrition and exercise — as is Samsung’s S Health.

All three of these companies are taking advantage of a number of trends, including the spread of powerful smartphones, the popularity of fitness trackers, and the inclusion of internet connections in even common household appliances such as scales. Apple, however, seems to be first out of the blocks in tackling the more difficult problem of getting data collected by these devices into doctors’ hands. At WWDC last year, the company announced a partnership with Epic Systems, the leading provider in the US of digital health records. Epic has already built apps to give doctors access to patients’ data and currently handles data for more than half of the US population. It's this sort of experience that could help Apple get ahead.

Apple has partnered with Epic, which handles half of America's medical data

However, there are still significant hurdles ahead for any tech company moving into the healthcare sector. Beyond simply building software that patients and doctors will use, there are issues of security and data selection: an iCloud-style data breach of medical records would be intolerable (and more than possible — hackers stole tens of millions of patient records from Anthem this week), and doctors won't want to be bombarded with potentially irrelevant or false data. Apple has made the first move, but there's still plenty of time for its rival to catch up.


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