Harnessing tech to shape the future of pandemic defense

The Computing Community Consortium, including CSE Prof. Rada Mihalcea, has released a new workshop report on the role of computing in preventing and mitigating the effects of pandemics.
A medical mask and a laptop keyboard against a bright red background

As the dust settles from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are left wondering not only how such a catastrophic global event could have happened, but also how we can prevent history from repeating itself. In the computer science discipline, especially, researchers are working diligently to assess the role of tech in the pandemic and to build better computing infrastructure in health care to address remaining inadequacies.

As part of this effort, the Computing Community Consortium (CCC), an initiative of the Computing Research Association (CRA), held a workshop on “The Future of Pandemic Response and Prevention” at the University of Michigan in September 2023. The workshop was organized by the CCC Computational Challenges in Healthcare Task Force, which includes Janice M. Jenkins Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Rada Mihalcea and Prof. Michael Sjoding of Michigan Medicine.

Rada Mihalcea
Prof. Rada Mihalcea

The workshop sparked new ideas and discussions surrounding the role of computing in preparing for and preventing the worst outcomes of a potential future pandemic. The CCC recently published a report summarizing the workshop’s primary considerations and conclusions, including “how computing was used during the COVID-19 pandemic, how it could have been used more effectively, and what research is needed to improve computing technologies for future responsiveness.”

During the workshop, which included researchers and practitioners from across computer science and health care, participants identified the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures needed to ensure our health technologies are strong enough to respond to similar outbreaks in the future.

“The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare major gaps in our country’s health care system and its technological toolkit,” said Mihalcea. “Computer scientists are in a unique position to develop solutions for many of these inefficiencies, but we have a lot of work to do. This workshop was an important first step in that direction.”

From these discussions arose three primary areas of opportunity where additional research is needed to address inefficiencies in health-care technology:

  • Models. From predicting how many supplies a hospital will need to forecasting the speed and trajectory of an outbreak’s spread, computational models are an essential tool in pandemic preparedness and response. However, many health care systems lack the computing resources needed to develop or run such models. The report thus suggests a significant ramp-up in efforts to bolster the computational capacity of health systems, including not only better devices and models but also enhanced training to manage and implement these technological resources.
  • Data. Data is a lynchpin of modern health care. Health systems need accurate and reliable datasets to run models efficiently, and sharing data across institutions is critical to understanding and managing crisis situations such as pandemics. Guaranteeing robust data and related processes is a multistep effort, which requires standardizing data across organizations, building stronger data infrastructure, and enhancing data sharing and access while maintaining patient privacy.
  • Infrastructure. In addition to the development of robust models and the datasets to run them, health care systems need more advanced technological infrastructure to access and implement these tools. Areas for potential improvement identified in the report include the development of more modern data collection structures, the creation of more efficient and privacy-compliant communications systems, and the strengthening of broader public health infrastructure at the state and federal levels.

Along with these three areas of improvement, another point of emphasis at the workshop was the importance of engaging local communities in designing and implementing technological solutions. According to the report, community buy-in is critical to ensuring that stakeholders are willing to contribute their personal information, follow public health guidance, and use new technologies.

The report identifies as equally important the design of resources and processes that can be utilized both in times of crisis and also during “peacetime.” In this way, researchers and practitioners are encouraged to craft sustainable solutions that make health care systems more efficient and responsive not only in preparation for future pandemics but also for the present.

“Our hope is that our recommendations from the workshop will strengthen efforts to leverage the latest computing methods to improve health care processes,” said Mihalcea. “Improving the technological capacity of the health care sector can help us foresee and prevent another potential outbreak and is thus an immediate public health concern.”