Invest in digital tools to help avoid future crises, say intensive care experts

The creation of a platform at the EU level for data sharing could allow a better quantity and quality of data for research purposes, the doctors said. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Investment in digital infrastructure and better coordination between data scientists and healthcare professionals can play a key role in the prevention of a second wave of coronavirus and future pandemics, healthcare professionals have told EURACTIV.

In a recent interview about the main lessons learned from the coronavirus outbreak, Jozef Kesecioglu and Maurizio Cecconi, president and president-elect of the European society of intensive Medicine (ESICM), an EU association representing intensive health care professionals, stressed that sharing data across the EU could help coordinate treatment and research efforts to combat the disease.

Both are intensive care doctors who have been working throughout the pandemic and were amongst the first to sound the alarm at the very early stages of the pandemic.

They stressed the importance of a coordinated response across the EU, highlighting that data sharing could play an important role in this.

According to Cecconi, there is “enormous potential in the way data can be used in the fight against outbreaks like COVID-19.”

There is a wealth of important data that Cecconi believes should be shared “as much as possible, while also respecting privacy”.

“This is something that we were pushing for before the pandemic, trying to bring together doctors and nurses together with data scientists to learn how to look at data sets and use them to their advantage,” he said, adding that this has taken on new importance in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

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‘Big data means big trials’

According to Kesecioglu, this could be especially helpful for directing research efforts and ensuring the best possible results.

“Something we’ve seen during the coronavirus outbreak is that we were not prepared for conducting trials during a crisis,” he said, adding that this has led to research that may not have stood up to scrutiny during normal times.

“Conducting trials at a multinational level is time-consuming as each country has a different system, with different standards, which has led to a very heterogeneous way of doing studies. This ultimately means we may not be getting the most accurate information,” Kesecioglu warned.

One way to achieve this is via the creation of an EU-wide platform for data sharing, which both say could allow a better quantity and quality of data for research purposes.

“Big data means big trials. This way we can have a much better understanding of the dynamics of the virus, the way it’s spreading, and we can also detect new clusters of the outbreak,” Kesecioglu said.

Cannot afford to be surprised twice

Cecconi said the biggest lesson learned from the pandemic was that no one was prepared for anything of this magnitude, and warned that we “cannot afford to be surprised twice”.

For Cecconi, this means increasing hospital and intensive care unit capacity, as well as doctor and nurse training.

“A competent team of trained staff is in many ways more important than having access to scarce resources like ventilators,” he said, adding that an increased focus on training and coordination at the EU level to allow staff to be deployed both nationally and internationally would help alleviate the pressure faced by intensive care units.

However, he stressed that it would be naïve to assume that we can increase our resilience by focusing only on hospitals, as it is also important to contain the infection in the community.

“One of the biggest mistakes was this notion of herd immunity, which is not appropriate for this kind of virus.”

“Testing the idea of herd immunity during an uncontrolled outbreak was simply wrong,” he said, highlighting a clear correlation between countries that acted fast to contain the virus and protect the most vulnerable and those with the lowest mortality rates.

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Stockpiling of resources

Another key lesson in the aftermath of the outbreak is the importance of centralisation of resource distribution, the two said.

“Something we saw all across the EU was a stockpiling of resources, like masks, in certain areas and hospitals, with hospitals competing for equipment,” Kesecioglu said, adding that countries that had a centralised distribution system of equipment have been able to respond to changing needs much more efficiently.

This is also the case for medicines, which they say have sometimes been in short supply.

“There is a lot of focus on these ‘magic’ drugs, but the evidence to support the use of some of these new drugs isn’t there yet. Instead, in our experience, we’ve seen that a good part of COVID patients can be effectively treated using simple drugs that have already been tried and tested, such as anaesthetics,” Cecconi said.

That is why, he added, we need a system that mandates and facilitates the sharing of resources across the EU in an equitable way.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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