As regions around the world respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, two medical informatics students in Switzerland have jumped into action with an ingenious project to help relieve the burden on their country’s healthcare system.

Medical Informatics works by matching a pre-existing network of healthcare institutions, such as hospitals, hospices, and care homes, with a database of more than 1,300 volunteers.

The platform, which the students initially built in four days, with the support of AWS, enables healthcare providers to proactively request support and be matched with a corresponding volunteer.

Close teamwork
Students Angelina Markl, 27, and Sebastian Fix, 29, began the initiative from their respective apartments, but now it consists of a group of contributors, applying expertise from a range of backgrounds.

Angelina explained how the entire project has been developed by working remotely due to social distancing measures: “I didn’t know the majority of our team before the pandemic, and I still haven’t met them!”

“Close teamwork helped us overcome the distance. Phone calls, video calls, screensharing, and shared documents for brainstorming were all essential. We took part in two hackathons to help develop team spirit. And we have calls after work so we can get to know each other properly.”

Angelina Markl, co-founder of Medical Informatics.
Sebastian, who previously trained as an engineer, is focused on the technology.

Volunteers for Medical Informatics fit into three categories based on their skills: those able to provide help with practical jobs like cooking, cleaning, and supporting care home staff; those with invaluable laboratory experience for testing; and those with dedicated medical experience.

Robust procedures are in place to ensure the safety of everybody involved: for example, volunteers must report on a range of symptoms before their contact information is shared.

Institutions also act according to their own regulations and background checks when vetting and permitting volunteers. This means the process is fully compliant with existing legislation.

Safety net
“Our motivation was to support the healthcare system in Switzerland, which has been overburdened during this crisis,” explains Angelina. “We were inspired by the huge potential for medical technology, and informatics, to work hand-in-hand to create new possibilities for medicine. Our mission now is to build a safety net of voluntary supporters for hospitals and other care institutions in this crisis and beyond.”

“We saw how the healthcare system in Switzerland had rapidly shifted its focus to the emergency needs of COVID-19 patients,” adds Sebastian. “This change increases the pressure on hospitals – but it also has a wider reaching impact across the health and social care systems. Particularly in care homes for elderly patients, we saw that they were crying out for help, and did not always need people with specific medical experience.”

“In some cases these institutions just need people to speak to their residents, take them for a walk or read to them – anything that takes their mind off the current crisis,” Angelina explains. “These day-to-day aspects of caring for the elderly are essential, but understandably they become less of a priority during the pandemic.”

She adds that care homes for the elderly are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus infection, and a single diagnosis can disrupt the operation of an entire institution. “When they diagnose a resident with coronavirus, the facility must be split into two areas. That doubles the demand on staff and can have a domino effect on other residents.”

Matching process
Having worked at great speed to set up the system, the team has already started matching institutions and volunteers. The matching process is managed directly by Angelina, who expects to see demand continue to increase over the next few weeks.

Sebastian, who previously trained as an engineer, is focused on the technology. “None of this would be possible without AWS,” he explains. “We started by accessing free credits that were available to support this kind of project, and then AWS technical experts guided us through the process and what was possible.”

From our first contact with AWS, they gave us certainty about how we would cover certain costs and immediately started their internal process for us to receive free credits. That happened within a couple of hours, freeing me up to think big about infrastructure engineering.

“Currently we’re still operating on servers, and we’re benefiting from flexible computing power so we can manage demand as it goes up and down. We’ll consider going serverless in the near future. Right now, AWS is providing the space and funding support we need to scale and implement this idea.”

“We hope this system enables healthcare providers in Switzerland to identify and stop resourcing problems before they occur. That can also reduce unnecessary travel and mitigate the risk of community transmission,” he adds.

Inspirational response
Having reached their initial goal of building the system and setting up matches between volunteers and institutions, the team now wants to continue scaling the service across the country.

Angelina says she has been inspired by the response from volunteers and peers.“Through the darkness of this situation, we can see the light of solidarity shining through. We have been struck by everybody’s desire to pull together and help one another.”

‘Medical informatics’ is the intersection between information science, computer science and healthcare. As a field of study, it supports evidence-based medicine through better management, processing and analysis of data and information streams, relating to resources, devices, treatments, drug development, and much more.