Experts Discuss Artificial Intelligence’s Role in COVID-19 and Health Care

The TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine and TCU Health Care MBA Host Health Care Forum co-hosted its annual health care forum, which featured Sai Bezawada, client executive Texas, IBM Corporation, and Steve Miff, president and CEO of PCCI Innovation, on artificial intelligence and AI's role in the COVID-19 pandemic and medicine on Wednesday, December 9, 2020 in Fort Worth.

By Prescotte Stokes III

FORT WORTH, Texas  – The COVID-19 pandemic began brewing in late January 2020 sending the health care system into uncertainty.

What quickly became evident, among health care and technology experts, was that combatting COVID-19 would require them to collaborate and accelerate their processes to find an equitable solution to defeating the virus. TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine Founding Dean Stuart D. Flynn, M.D., opened up a discussion about artificial intelligence’s role in medicine by spotlighting global tech giant, IBM.

The company approached the pandemic with a mindset of getting certain functionalities into the hands of health care professionals as soon as possible, according to Sai Bezawada, client executive Texas, IBM Corporation.

“The thought was how do we take the technology assets we have with IBM Watson and IBM Cloud and how do we put this in the hands of our research community and our frontline heroes,” Bezawada said.

Bezawada, along with Steve Miff, president and CEO of PCCI Innovation, shared their perspectives on the role of artificial intelligence in the COVID-19 pandemic and the advancement of health care during the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine and TCU Health Care MBA Annual Health Care Forum presented by J Taylor on December 9.

The hour-long panel discussion was moderated by Dean Flynn and Daniel Pullin, J.D., dean of the TCU Neeley School of Business. This year, the event was held virtually via Zoom, but was still free and open to the public. More than 300 participants joined the virtual discussion in which Bezawada and Miff talked about how AI could help health care workers provide better care for patients.

“In Texas during the pandemic, we were able to accelerate how we solve these problems,” Bezawada said. “AI has helped us think big along with solving big problems.”

Helping solve big problems isn’t something new to a multinational tech juggernaut. For more than 100 years, IBM has offered solutions to a variety of businesses through their IBM Cloud, IBM Watson, advanced research and development labs, intelligent enterprise security solutions and service, IBM research with more than 3,000 researchers in 12 labs on six continents and offering the building blocks of next-gen information and technology infrastructure.

By March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had begun to prompt federal and local governments to enforce strict shelter-in-place orders in the U.S. and globally. It was at that time IBM realized they could move much faster than they had previously anticipated in aiding health care professionals.

“We had been focusing on being agile for the past 3 to 5 years at that point and being able to turn in things within a week or two,” Bezawada said. “But then you get into a situation where you need to help a neo-natal call center in South Florida in one day because they’ve gone from getting 100 calls to 10,000 calls. We’ve been impressed with the speed and how quickly we can move and mobilize nationally.

Interestingly enough, the technology to move faster and help large health care systems in Texas and beyond was already available, according to Bezawada.

“We’ve made some improvements for the pandemic but the technology was already there,” Bezawada said. “What changed was the creativity of the people dealing with the customers and the community and listening to them and getting them what they need.”

Early on in the pandemic the need for ventilators in hospitals across the U.S. was far lower than the number COVID-19 patients coming into emergency rooms. By late April the New England Journal of Medicineestimated that the number of ventilators needed to care for U.S. patients with COVID-19 ranged from several hundred thousand to as many as a million.

IBM had a team working with health care systems to help them understand how to get the best usage out of their ventilators given the shortage.

“Looking at the settings on it and how long you want to keep a patient on it and what are the optimal settings,” Bezawada said. “Those were the type of use cases we were looking at and how do we correlate that data and make sure we’re not missing something.”

The layers of collaboration between IBM and health care providers extended into helping them build trust and connections with new businesses who could develop personal protective equipment (PPE) at a faster rate. Another one of the pressing needs early on in the pandemic.

“We really got out of our comforting zone and started collaborating so the hospitals could get what they need,” Bezawada said.

It also gave them an opportunity to help researchers who were rushing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine get more relevant data without the red tape that is normally involved. IBM made a database of close to 3,000 drug molecules and nearly 10,000 genes from their genomics program available to researchers in need.

“Researchers could get in and do whatever computations they have to do,” Bezawada said. “There was a need to serve information in a simple way. We made that available to researchers so that they could ask simple questions and get answers and it proved to be very effective.”

The idea of collaboration between tech companies and health care systems prompted Dean Pullin to move the conversation in a direction of companies collaborating in North Texas and he added that PCCI Innovation was a great example of that.

Miff’s company, PCCI started as a department within Parkland Health and Hospital System in North Texas and then became an independent, not-for-profit organization in 2012 to not only serve the needs of Parkland, but to also pursue additional transformative initiatives that could have a broader impact.

Now, the company is a mission-driven organization with industry-leading expertise in the practical applications of advanced data science and social determinants of health. They are capable of providing innovative, actionable solutions that more effectively identify needs, prioritize services, empower health care providers and engage patients.

“Before the pandemic we were using AI and leveraging predictive models to help identify patients that were at risk for certain types of complications or adverse side effects to certain medications,” Miff said. “The other part of it is the population health side where AI has been used to identify rising risks in populations for things like asthma, pre-term birth or etcetera.”

PCCI was able to reach out to health care systems in North Texas in March and began helping them collect data from the community. They were able to go into different communities and begin collecting data on COVID-19 from individuals they could in turn share with health care systems to come up with more effective solutions.

“What COVID-19 has done is accelerated partnerships for creating better access to data,” Miff said. “It has infused the need to not only bring in data about the health but also about the community and data about the individuals and all of these other things that are important as we try to understand and manage the pandemic.”

But gathering health data was only the first step as the pandemic rapidly began to evolve. Big companies such as Google, Apple and others, like PCCI, embraced and understood how important it was to collaborate and develop new techniques around geo-mapping, visualization and new algorithms that could be helpful to health care providers battling COVID-19.

There were four areas of data that PCCI focused on to help health care systems, counties and cities. Those included data visualization, a proximity index, a vulnerability index and capacity planning and prediction forecast modeling.

“This was for Parkland and other health care systems so they could anticipate what the bed needs are and so they could track and understand the progression of the disease across the community,” Miff said. “But also do a version of that, that maintains the privacy of the community.”

However, those detailed sets of data have come with some hefty debate from the public about how it is being used and protected. The proximity information PCCI receives from other organizations is provided at a level is not identifying individuals, but shows a summary across communities.

“What we have tried to do is not get into picking a side but to tee up information in a way that both individuals, local municipality officials and physicians can use that information to enhance the decisions that they make,” Miff said. “Then make it accessible to individuals so they can see where they are in relation to COVID hotspots and how they progress over time. It gets away from the creepy part of looking at individuals and into the part where you can track communities and it becomes useful.”

Miff also added that when the information is presented to physicians it is much more granular and specific, meaning the data physicians see will not focus on the whole population, but will focus on individual patients.

With this new source of collaboration and creativity between tech companies and health care systems, will we be better prepared to respond when the next pandemic occurs?

“I think we have created things with new technology that have accelerated things and we will be able to use it in much more applicable ways beyond the COVID application,” Miff said.