KARACHI, Pakistan – Beyond stepping up manufacturing of the medical devices it needs to fight COVID-19, Pakistan is using technology platforms to reach out to a large diaspora for help. The country is taking steps to leverage limited resources through a more comprehensive system of telehealth applications that allow for faster self-diagnosis and make it possible to tap into the expertise of Pakistani doctors.

The country has already started manufacturing ventilators and oxygenators that the more serious patients need in the course of treatment as well as manufacturing N95 masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). Riaz Uddin at the Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw University of Engineering and Technology (NED University) has developed a low-price ventilator made from scrap materials and is now waiting for approval to manufacture in scale.

The country is struggling to contain the virus. It had recorded more than 59,000 infections by May 27 and over 1,200 deaths.

But, beyond the practicalities of making the equipment needed to treat patients at home, health officials and the government are putting more emphasis on technology to address the pandemic.

Pakistan’s government is prioritizing the development of digital health care platforms to not only educate people and fight COVID-19 but also to bring the significant expertise of Pakistani doctors living and working abroad to bear on the country.

“In these times when mobility is restricted and contact limited, we are working to promote new health initiatives aligned with the needs on the ground in Pakistan,” Zafar Mirza, special assistant on health to the prime minister, told BioWorld.

Pakistan established a national dashboard to centralize the monitoring of COVID-19 cases across the country, making it possible for anybody anywhere in the world to easily access real-time information related to the pandemic. The state-of-the-art website at www.covid.gov.pk includes information on cases for each province, deaths and suspected cases as well as precautionary measures and other virus-related information.

But Pakistan has also launched another, more unique, platform called “Yaran-e-Watan” or Friends of the Country. Tania Aidrus, the head of Digital Pakistan said that yaranewatan.gov.pk opens up an emergency response system for Pakistani health professionals overseas that can use telehealth to share their expertise through tele-training sessions, use telemedicine to triage and counselling patients and other health professionals, tackle public health issues and engage in research collaborations.

“We connect overseas health professionals to the appropriate institutions in Pakistan who would benefit from their clinical expertise, research expertise and capacity building via digital technology platforms,” said Aidrus.

More than 3,000 health professionals from around the world have been registered on the Yaran-e-Watan platform.

“It’s a matchmaking between overseas health professionals and local institutions and individuals operating within Pakistan,” Aidrus added.

The architect of the online platform is a Norwegian-Pakistani medical professional, Usman Mushtaq. She said Yaran-e-Watan’s initial focus is digital health and improving patient outcomes by allowing experts to volunteer digitally in areas that suit their expertise. The platform is a collaborative venture of the Ministry of National Health Services and the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development.

Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that Pakistani health professionals are on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19 across the world and the government wants to tap into all this expertise.

Self-screening for the coronavirus continues to be a public health priority. There are a number of initiatives around the country. For instance, the government of Sindh has started a public-private partnership with Aga Khan University Hospital and established a mobile application called Corona Check that enables people in Pakistan to easily and safely evaluate symptoms with an in-home screening tool and understand the next steps they need to take to look after themselves.

“The app uses an interactive chatbot, driven by artificial intelligence, which allows users to understand their symptoms, recognize whether they may have contracted COVID-19 and seek help in a timely manner,” said Meeran Yousuf, a spokesperson of the health department of Sindh. “It also aims to identify potential coronavirus carriers and limit their risk of transmission.”

The app also allows access to information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and videos in Urdu as well as a list of government and major hospital helplines. By reducing the need for patients to visit hospitals for screening, the app will also contribute to reducing the burden on the healthcare system and ensure care for those most in need, Yousuf added.

“Through this app, we hope to share useful tips that can prevent new cases and provide reassurance to worried citizens during a time of widespread concern,” said Project Director Saleem Sayani.

The tool has been adopted from Canada’s Alberta Health Services and modified to meet local context and the evolving epidemiology of the disease. Coronacheck also seeks to tackle myths and misconceptions by featuring educational videos in Urdu to combat the increasing bulk of unverified information circulating on social media platforms.

Pakistan is also working with telecommunications providers to send mass awareness messages in place of the regular call ring. The government is also using a mobile phone tracking system that uses geospatial data to identify where COVID-19 patients have been and send text messages to possible contacts, said Tania Adrius, head of Digital Pakistan. The government is also using a Whatsapp service to provide information in various languages, including English, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi and Kashmiri.

Pakistan is also using artificial intelligence (AI) to diagnose the virus. Two mechanical engineering students at the Gulam Ishaq Khan Institute, Mohammad Aleem and Rahul Raj, have developed the software.

“The AI-powered deep learning model we have developed from scratch can help detect COVID-19 with 92 percent confidence using a computer tomography (CT) scan of the lungs,” said Aleem. “The detector relies on chest CT imaging.”

Another telehealth project underway is Sehat Tahaffuz 1166, a polio eradication helpline that allows caregivers to share concerns and receive accurate information about polio and other vaccines. As the pandemic spread, the government expanded the system to fight COVID-19, said Mirza. The system allows health experts to give opinions via telehealth and makes it possible for the public to access information and treatment options from different platform like websites, mobile apps and live telehealth services.