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Contact tracing tools break into the healthcare sector

Contact tracing has been used by public health agencies for years. With COVID-19, the methodology is breaking out of the public health sector and into healthcare.

Healthcare CIOs are doing their part to think through how to bring employees back into their health systems. One methodology they are helping investigate is contact tracing -- along with the tools that vendors are developing to make contact tracing easier.

Contact tracing has been used by public health departments for years. The technique involves tracking down individuals an infected person has been in contact with and notifying them that they need to monitor themselves for symptoms of the disease. While this has largely been a manual process that involves call centers, tech companies like Apple and Google are trying to change that by developing tools to keep better tabs on COVID-19 symptoms and even automatically alert people of exposure.

In this Q&A, Forrester Research healthcare analyst Jeffrey Becker explains why contact tracing will take healthcare systems to the next level with disease surveillance and why healthcare CIOs need to familiarize themselves with the process. 

What is contact tracing and why are healthcare CIOs talking about it?

Jeffrey BeckerJeffrey Becker

Jeffrey Becker: Contact tracing was around before this pandemic and it will be around after the next one. … Traditional contact tracing is just asking who you've seen in the last 14 days -- where did you go, who have you seen? You can stand up an effective contact tracing program with call centers, and that's what public health agencies are doing. They use call centers to call the people that you named to tell them, 'You need to monitor your symptoms; you've been exposed.'

What is the value of contact tracing to healthcare systems?

Becker: They're operating in such a high-risk environment that there are existing infectious disease surveillance tools available that most IT teams at hospitals are already running. [But] the contact tracing approach is unique in that it goes beyond just traditional surveillance and aims to capture person-to-person instances of extended contact. There is value in that for a health system because once a patient is diagnosed with COVID-19, the health system can look back and identify all of their exposed clinicians.

What's the reality of contact tracing for healthcare CIOs right now?

Becker: The reality right now is that they should already have contact tracing programs in place in some shape or form -- they might just not even recognize them as contact tracing programs. I would expect that in many cases there is a process in place at the office where, if you test positive and you report that to your employer, they'll go back through their systems of record and identify every patient you've seen. They'll create a list of people you were in proximity to and they'll create that list through a manual workflow, a manual process. There will be a team of people who investigate your last 14 days and compile a list and that will inform outbound communication strategies.

Are contact tracing tools, apps and programs something healthcare CIOs should be considering?

Becker: Healthcare is one of the places where it could be most helpful. Doctors are seeing so many patients a day, they're all very high risk. Especially as the [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] is alluding to reopening elective procedures in certain areas. You're talking about non-COVID patients coming back to the hospital, non-COVID-related doctors coming back to the hospital. It would be a very helpful solution when you start to think about the reopening of the healthcare system.

What's the buzz around what companies like Google and Apple are building?

Becker: When you look at what Google and Apple are doing, it's an innovative, new approach to contact tracing. … The new technology that Apple and Google are creating is trying to extend the list of people you were in contact with. They're trying to add the people who we don't know, what their names [are]. It's not a problem while we're at home, but it starts to become a problem when we all leave home and start to reenter the community. 

If they [are] able to achieve meaningful adoption, you would get a notice on your phone that said someone you were within six feet of for more than 15 minutes over the last 14 days has tested positive for COVID-19. The whole process would be automated.

Are there privacy issues with that kind of technology?

Becker: If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 but you're relatively asymptomatic and you have to go back to work because it's been a week and you feel fine, or because you need to make ends meet, if you walk into your workplace with that app still running and you sit down in your conference room meetings, everyone's phones are going to light up … very invasive.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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