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Tech Rescue

A clutch of start-ups is offering solutions to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic

Tech Rescue

Illustration by Raj Verma

In Anjarakandy Medical College at Kannur in north Kerala, Nightingale-19 is set to deliver food and water to patients in Covid isolation wards. Painted in red and white, Nightingale is a robot designed by students of Vimal Jyothi Engineering College, Chemperi, in Kannur with support from Kerala's health department. The robot helps medical staff and hospital workers minimise close contact with Covid patients and can carry food and water to six patients at one go. It helps patients communicate with doctors, nurses and family members through a tablet attached on top.

The robot is thoroughly sanitised after each round of duty. Nightingale is inspired by robots used by the health department in Wuhan, China, according to the developers.

More than 500 kilometres from Kannur, in Tamil Nadu's Vellore, Arulalan, a community-based paediatrician, is busy chatting. The doctor runs an affordable health centre in Vellore. His AA Child Care Centre used to get around 80 people a day. But, after the corona outbreak, only emergency consultations happen at the clinic. Arulalan has installed a tele-consultation solution offered by Chennai-based start-up Helyxon, which helps him monitor patients remotely. "Only emergency cases are encouraged for a physical visit. Thus, we have reduced 75 per cent of the patient inflow," says Arulalan. "On an average, 5-10 video consultations happen every day and I receive more than 50 enquiries through our messaging app, all thanks to technology," he smiles.

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Helyxon also offers patient monitoring solutions - OXY 2 and FeverWatch - which are now being used by a couple of Chennai-based hospitals for monitoring Covid patients. "These solutions help them remotely monitor vital details of patients with artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled biosensors. The devices will track vital details and alert healthcare workers if any abnormalities happen," says Vijai Shankar Raja, Founder, Helyxon.

Helyxon's solutions and Nightingale are a few of the many innovative solutions developed by a clutch of Indian start-ups to tackle the Covid pandemic. Entrepreneurs have either developed new solutions or customised existing solutions to help healthcare workers, hospitals, law-enforcing authorities, state and central governments and the public at large to fight the Covid pandemic. Betting on tools such as AI, analytics, machine learning, cloud technologies and chatbots, both health and technology start-ups are gearing up to weather the storm.

Patient Triage and Health Monitoring

With positive cases rising by the day in India, healthcare workers are frantically searching for tools for prompt identifying, testing and quarantining of patients, especially in Covid hotspot areas. Many start-ups have come up with triage and pre-screening tools for this. Hyderabad-based start-up Docturnal has customised its pulmonary tuberculosis screening solution, TimBre, to screen Covid-19 patients. The solution is a smart non-invasive diagnosis method which screens the cough of patients and is offered as a home-based screening tool via the mobile phone and also through a microphone array (external device) for a clinical setting. A healthcare worker can record the cough of a patient using a microphone array or an individual can record it using a phone or through websites. The solution automatically detects critical factors such as shortness of breath. The patient's data like demographic details, pre-existing health conditions, sleep and cough patterns and so on are also collected. Using machine learning, the recording is processed. The solution provides real-time results. "The technology is designed for asymptomatic screening as well to identify hidden cases," says Co-Founder Rahul Pathri. "We have released its pre-beta version and have achieved 86 per cent accuracy," he says.

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Another Bangalore-based start-up AI Highway, founded last year by two doctors - Satish S. Jeevannavar and Radhakrishna S. Jamadagni - has also developed a Covid triage and pre-screening tool. "There is a lot of confusion on whether we are in stage 2 or stage 3 of Covid spread. With limited ventilators available in India, only highly suspected cases need to go to Covid-designated hospitals. The rest can be managed using telemedicine and triage tools," says Jeevannavar, who was also part of health rehabilitation of earthquake victims in Jammu & Kashmir some years ago. Using AI and machine learning technologies, the pre-screening tool collects data from patients on symptoms, contact history and location, assesses risk and categorises patients into low-risk, mid-risk and high-risk categories. It then schedules the next assessment on day 3, 7 and 14 too." Launched in the last week of March, the tool has till now screened more than 1,000 users.

Collecting patient data and preparing medical records can be tiresome to health workers and hospitals when the number of patients increases. To solve this, Bangalore-based Ubiqare is offering a cloud-based mobility healthcare platform with features of electronic medical records, interactive audio-video sessions with clinical notes, e-prescription, patient-monitoring and dashboards. The patient data entered can be shared among doctors, paramedics, phlebotomists and pharmacists. With smart data on its platform, the solution allows district-level organisations and zonal teams to implement Covid care protocols. "The patient's vitals and subjective health indicators are regularly captured in the app," says Sundar Srinivasan, Chairman and Managing Director, Ubiqare. "The app helps district nodal health officers to watch thousands of people who are asymptomatic or with mild symptoms in their homes or quarantine centres. Patients can be also tracked in isolation wards. This will enable the use of hospital beds wisely," he says.

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Mumbai-based PharmEasy, an online pharmacy and tele-medicine start-up that has 1,000 doctors on board, has tied up with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to better monitor and track Covid patients. "As Maharashtra tops in the number of Covid patients, we are getting many calls and enquiries from remote locations. These are answered by our doctors. We are also arranging home testing/sampling if needed," says Dr Dhaval Shah, co-founder of PharmEasy. "We have seen a 200 per cent spike in tele-medicine enquiries after the disease outbreak. Many queries are about over the counter medicines and collection of home samples," says Shah.

Chatbots and Virtual Humans

Apart from tools dedicated to healthcare workers and hospitals, many start-ups have customised their AI-based chatbots to combat Covid. Notable among them is Mumbai-based Haptik Infotech, owned by Reliance Jio. It has developed a dedicated WhatsApp chatbot for the Central Government, MyGov Corona Helpdesk. "We provide timely updates and help citizens clear their queries on Covid-19," says Kartik Poddar, Business Head, Haptik. Launched on March 20, more than 30 million people have used its services. The bot has answered more than 60 million queries. "Most queries we received were around the nearest Covid healthcare centres and Covid symptoms. We also try our best to curb the spread of Covid-related fake news through the chatbot," he says.

An Intelligent Remote Assistant (IRA), similar to AI-based chatbots, developed by Hyderabad-based Digibeings can interact like humans using human voices, facial expressions and gestures and helps in remote monitoring of Covid patients. The solution can be accessed through mobile devices, desktop, virtual reality or augmented reality devices and can help patients in isolation interact with healthcare providers. According to Praveen Anasuya, one of the co-founders of Digibeings, with an attached mobile camera, the system can also check vital parameters, including oxygen saturation level and respiration rate, which will help remote monitoring teams to address more patients and guide people on mental health issues. The company has developed a prototype and has pitched it to various state and central governments.

Curfew Passes and More

While health tech companies are all geared up to combat Covid through their dedicated healthcare services, many start-ups are developing solutions for crowd monitoring and helping law enforcing agencies function easily. Bangalore-based Mygate ensures smooth functioning of essential services. The company has built the e-pass infrastructure for Karnataka Police that was launched on March 31. "More than 20 lakh passes have been issued so far. In Bangalore alone, two lakh passes have been issued," says Vijay Arisetty, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, MyGate. The company is now planning to expand its solutions to other metros as well and says it has received interest from other state governments. "Our solution is scalable and can be customised to any city," he says.

In the north, Gurugram-based DronaMaps has created a command and control centre dashboard solution to equip administrative bodies with reliable data on Covid positive cases, home quarantined patients and their locations. The dashboard also has cluster analysis and heat maps and helps authorities on patient location tracking and geofencing for compliance of lockdowns. The solution can also predict Covid spread and estimate the healthcare infrastructure need for the particular location. "We are working with governments of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chhattisgarh and Meghalaya. Our dashboards act as a central node for all the Covid data these states are dealing with. This includes citizen centric dashboards, data from healthcare workers, secondary solutions like mobile health clinics and hyperlocal deliveries," says Ayushi Mishra, Chief Operations Officer, DronaMaps, adding that their public dashboards had two million views in the first few days of launch.

Staqu, another Gurugram-based AI company, is also helping law enforcement authorities with their thermal imaging solutions and help issue curfew passes for the Punjab government and Noida city administration. "So far we have issued 10 lakh passes in Punjab and two lakh in Noida," says, Atul Rai, Co-Founder and CEO. Staqu also has an AI-based video analytics solution that can monitor patients in quarantine. The solution, which has a thermal camera, can alert the authorities if anyone has a body temperature above 37C based on heat signatures.

Various law enforcement bodies are also tying up with start-ups and app makers to track home quarantine people. Tiruvallur district in Tamil Nadu recently launched an app Cobuddy to track people under home quarantine. Developed by Chennai-based NotionTag Technologies, the app can track and communicate with Covid suspect patients and coordinate delivery of essentials to the doorsteps of the quarantined persons. The app has embedded technologies such as attendance through facial recognition systems and random messages that ask the quarantine patients to send photographs as proof. This disables a patient from keeping his phone at home and sneaking out.

Start-ups that make drones too are working alongside authorities providing services such as disinfecting contaminated areas and managing crowds. Hyderabad-based Marut Drones has customised its drones to spray disinfectants. The company's drones have so far sprayed disinfectants in eight districts of Telangana and have disinfected more than 1,700 square kilometres. The company claims that the drones can spray 200 litres of chemicals a day. The drones also help monitor people movement and are used for crowd control and delivering medicines to quarantined people. The company has received enquiries from 12 states, including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, for Covid-related sanitisation.

The entrepreneurs hope the power of technology can be a defining force in fight against the Covid pandemic and given that the previous pandemics didn't see this unique assistance from cutting-edge technology such as AI, robotics or big data analytics, the current crisis will soon see its moment of exit for good.

The author is a freelance writer based in Chennai

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