Contact tracing would be so much faster if the process was automated, so why isn’t it?


Author: William Flanagan, Commercial & Technology Director at OpenSky Data Systems.

The furor over the contact tracing debacle is one topic that has been publicised at length. In case you somehow missed it – which is unlikely – the HSE is asking people who test positive with coronavirus to notify their close contacts. This may sound like a simple enough task, but when a person is ill with the virus, this could be a tremendous effort and pivotally, it may not be completed at all. Furthermore, the process around organising a test in the first place is proving lengthy and often spans a number of days. Considering that both testing and contact tracing are vital parts of efforts to control and fight the virus, it is worrying, not least for public health, that these steps are proving inefficient and ineffective.

Automation enhances public services

A few months back, OpenSky commissioned a survey by Censuswide which revealed that 77% of Irish citizens believe automation would enhance the quality of service within the public sector. While this survey was conducted earlier in the year, it is fair to assume there would be little or no change to these findings. In fact, I’d safely say that there would be an even greater appetite for automation in light of the challenges which Covid-19 has thrown at us.

The Irish public has greatly embraced apps and technology, especially during the pandemic with families communicating online through Microsoft Teams, Zoom and House Party. The research found that most Irish people (56%) prefer to contact public service bodies and government agencies online (via app, web on smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.).

Furthermore, the research revealed what people see as the main benefits of online public services. More than half (56%) said it means they can do it at any time. Faster response times was the second top answer (52%) while increased efficiency was third (43%). The findings showed how health is one area where citizens would like to see more online services with more than half (54%) of citizens preferring to do non-emergency appointments with a doctor online rather than in-person. Some 28% said this was to avoid infections, but the most popular reason was to save time.

Technology and its place in public services

Technology could be used to address the issues arising in testing and contact tracing by automating the process and streamlining the delivery of services. Once the right technology solutions are customised, implemented and supported, it will deliver compliance and improved operational efficiencies. Though automation is one facet to the testing and contact tracing predicament, human intervention is still required in public services since there are so many elements within the contact tracing process such as; case management, proximity tracing, notification and identification/follow up.

Case Management tools could provide support and improve workflows, keeping people updated on their communications from contact tracers, generating questionnaires and self-reporting of contacts, sending automated check-ins on daily health updates, and referral alerts if or when they are needed. The unified and secure system would hold all of the person’s data and log history which are available for medical purposes and refer patients if needed. It would be fully confidential and GDPR compliant.

In terms of testing, there is potential to completely automate and digitise this process by enabling people who need to book tests to do so online, select a centre that is close to them and at a suitable time. As well as reducing the time taken to secure an appointment for the test and the subsequent results, this would free up more human resources to focus on supporting the contact tracing efforts.

The capabilities exist; therefore, the Government must strive to innovate and shake off the old traditional methods of test appointments and contact tracing. Culture, mindset, current structures and work practices require a massive overhaul to redefine how the testing and contact tracing functions are applied going forward and why it is important to do better. Technology has an extremely important role in public services and how services are delivered – as we move through this challenging time, technology will become even more of an enabler. A huge amount of work has been delivered as IT companies continue to innovate, upskill and offer the most effective technologies available on the market to solve real-world problems with definitive positive results.

There are obviously many complexities to providing a solution to digitise and automate testing and contact tracing. However, with a virus that isn’t going away soon, the time to address these obstacles is now. Time is of the essence as we find ourselves in Level 5 lockdown and anything that can be done to transform the manual and often cumbersome processes to create a level of trust, improve user experience and provide better results for all involved, must be done. What the Irish public needs and deserves right now is a safer nation.

The technology exists, so why reduce our reliance on a disjointed and ineffective system that may only cause more chaos in an already chaotic world?

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