Tackling covid

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September 3, 2020

Dina Katabi realized her technology could help caregivers monitor patients while practicing social distancing.

Dina Katabi realized her technology could help caregivers monitor patients while practicing social distancing.

JOHN D. AND CATHERINE T. MACARTHUR FOUNDATION

THE CHALLENGE:
We don’t know much about the progression of covid-19, and it’s dangerous to treat.

THE PLAN:
Emerald uses electromagnetic waves to track patients’ vitals from afar.

Cara Giaimo, SM ’15

Designed to collect consistent, sustained data, Emerald has been used in long-term studies of diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and epilepsy. When the communities where the platform is normally used—in retirement and assisted living homes—became some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, another of its strengths became clear. Emerald “allows a caregiver to capture the physiological signal of a patient without the caregiver being close to the patient,” says Katabi, who founded a startup company based on the technology in 2013. 

Ipsit Vahia, the medical director of the Institute for Technology and Psychiatry at McLean Hospital, had already been working with the devices to study the effects of dementia. In April, he began using them to help him care for four patients recovering from covid-19 in an assisted living facility—without setting foot in their rooms. An abnormal breathing pattern might be a sign of respiratory distress, while pacing could indicate anxiety.

By tracking both physical and mental health markers, and focusing on patients who aren’t in critical condition, Emerald “is giving us a window into the illness that not a lot of people are looking at,” says Vahia, who uses information gleaned through Emerald to supplement what he learns during telemedicine visits.

Vahia plans to employ the technology to care for more covid patients, for whom recovery can be long; at least 20 will be involved in one upcoming study. And as of mid-June, clinical teams at McLean, the Mayo Clinic, and Washington University Medical Campus in St. Louis had adopted the tool for covid care as well.

Emerald was not originally designed for real-time use. So Katabi’s team and the caretaking staff spend a lot of time communicating, swapping feedback and providing advice. In the first weeks of the pandemic, they met each evening over video chat to talk through the data from that day. Now they convene a call whenever a new data set or observation merits it. 

Although they are working on automating this process further so that they can scale it, the back-and-forth has been invaluable as the team revamps the device for this new purpose, Katabi says: “We are in continuous contact.” At a distance, of course.

This is an exerpt from the article: "Tackling covid: MIT researchers have always been drawn to urgent, life-or-death problems. The pandemic is keeping them busy." The complete article was published in the MIT Technology Review on August 18, 2020