The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the healthcare ecosystem on its head. The outbreak led to sharp decreases for in-person visits and the delay of elective care procedures, due both to official public safety measures and consumer’s avoidance of exposure. Care providers and health systems have leaned on technology to provide much needed care to patients at home, through telehealth consultations and remote patient monitoring programs. Parks Associates data reveal that telehealth use has nearly tripled year-over-year:
• In Q2 2020 41% of US broadband households report engaging in a telehealth visit within the prior 12 months, compared with just 15% in Q2 2019.
Similarly, public health officials turn to technology to slow the spread of the virus itself through smartphone-based contact tracing.
Contact tracing is proven to help contain infectious disease; it is traditionally performed by trained personnel who identify and contact those who may have been exposed by an infected person. However, much of its effectiveness depends on the recall quality of the infected person and the timeliness of tracers’ ability to locate and contact potentially exposed persons. Using Bluetooth signals to detect the distance and duration of interaction between people, a smartphone-based approach promises to detect many people with whom an infected person may have come into contact, but who are unknown to the person. It can also make notifications of potential exposure nearly instantaneous.
Tech giants Apple and Google collaborated to create the underlying technology, releasing an API for smartphone-based contact tracing in May. However, it was left to public policy makers, health organizations, and other third-party players to build the apps, attract users, and make effective use of the technology. Several European countries, including Switzerland, Germany, and Ireland, released contact tracing apps quickly. The U.S. has been slow to make use of the technology, with states and individual counties hiring teams of thousands of people to conduct manual tracing instead.
For effective digital contact tracing, consumers must adopt the technology. A study by Oxford University indicates adoption by just 15% of the population will result in reduced disease transmission and fewer deaths; 60% or greater adoption yields the greatest public health benefits. To promote wider adoption, Apple and Google rolled out Exposure Notification Express on September 1st, which removes the requirement that individuals seek out and download an app from a public health official. Apple and Google are taking on app development and ongoing support to relieve health organizations of that burden.
Twenty-five states have expressed interest and 10 have signed on as of mid-September 2020.
Of course, consumers themselves must opt-in to the system. This requires a high level of trust that their data will be protected, their identity will be kept private, and that their participation is meaningful and effective. If such assurances are in place, Parks Associates research indicates many are willing to give contact tracing apps a try:
- 52% of consumers in US broadband households are willing to share their smartphone data to slow the spread of COVID-19
- Another 20% would be willing to share their data, with privacy protections – such as permission for data use and data anonymization – in place.
In total, over 70% of respondents are willing to share data if privacy protections are assured. Consumers are even more willing to share their data for contact tracing if they personally know someone who has or has had COVID-19. As the pandemic continues, this segment will increase. As of July 2020, 39% of consumers in broadband households knew at least one person who has contracted the virus.
There is a tremendous opportunity to use smartphone apps to help fight the spread of COVID-19. US consumers report sufficient interest in contract tracing to make the effort, alongside other approaches to contain the virus, worthwhile. To increase the odds of success, consumer education from Apple, Google, and public health officials on how to opt-in is essential. In addition, privacy safeguards must be present and stressed to consumers.
For more insight on technology use during the COVID-19 pandemic, see Parks Associates primary research studies:
 Oxford University Big Data Institute, https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/Article/2020-04-16-digital-contact-tracing-can-slow-or-even-stop-coronavirus-transmission-and-ease-us-out-of-lockdown