By Andrew Wight for Forbes
A physician-turned-entrepreneur raised in Kashmir is now part of a team using big data and machine learning to help detect useful patterns in the tsunami of public health data generated world-wide by the COVID-19 crisis and do what he can for those back home.
Junaid Nabi, a public health researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, says his experiences with the health system in the developing world drives his current work.
“Growing up in Kashmir, a society marred with social, economic, and healthcare disparities, I was exposed to the inherent inequities in my community at an early age,” he said, ”During the final years of my training, I had an opportunity to work with some non-profit organizations, especially the rescue teams during the Savar building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh.”
“This is when I noticed that clinical medicine does not answer all the questions clinical work asks.”
Nabi, who is also an Aspen New Voices Fellow, is now working with colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health to develop digital tools that harness big data and machine learning to rapidly evaluate patterns in the data pouring in from clinical research.
“I believe machine learning has an important role in COVID-19,” he said.
Nabi says even though the sheer volume of public health data being generated defies rapid interpretation by traditional means, researchers can use machine learning algorithms to find patterns and connections that can hopefully be used to inform clinical decision-making.
He is also trying to help the COVID-19 response in Kashmir.
The region, a flash-point between India and Pakistan for decades, not only faces renewed tensions since more than 40 Indian soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in February 2019, its fragile health system is grappling with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Indian government figures, as of the end of the second week of April, the total number of COVID-19 positive cases in Jammu and Kashmir stood at 207, with four confirmed deaths – compared to 6882 total confirmed cases and 237 deaths in India.
“I think there is a sustained effort to identify and track cases—but as is happening in many other places globally, it is likely that there is under-reporting in Kashmir.”
German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported internet connectivity was only restored in Kashmir last month – and only at low speeds – and local doctors warn slow internet means even just downloading guidelines from the World Health Organisation can take many hours.
Nabi says the Kashmir valley’s unique geopolitical status has given rise to several disadvantaged groups including the impoverished in the city of Srinagar as well as in the countryside.
“The ones in the rural areas – especially indigenous populations, such as Gujjars – are bound to be affected more as they already suffer from socio-economic impediments in accessing health care: lack of proper transport, limited income, limited accommodation in the areas that have healthcare facilities,” he said, adding that while there is a publicly-funded health system in Kashmir, the capacity is severely limited.
Although Nabi hasn’t been able to get back to Kashmir since 2017, he is doing what he can.
“For COVID-19 response initiatives in Kashmir, I am supporting a team with members at Harvard and MIT, who are working with local doctors and engineers, to design and develop affordable ventilators to increase the capacity of respiratory therapy in our community,” he said.
Nabi is also supporting initiatives empowering young Kashmiri professionals to find innovative ways to deliver healthcare there.
“Limited resources have induced a spirit of innovation among the young professionals in the valley—engineers and doctors are collaborating to design devices that can increase the capacity of a limited number of ventilators in the valley, some innovators are engaged in designing new ventilation devices, and I have also observed some places practicing kiosk-style testing for COVID-19,” he said.
Nabi is not the only doctor based in the US who is trying to help COVID-19 efforts in their home country.
Libyan doctor-turned-tech-CEO Mohamed Aburawi helped develop a telehealth platform that is now being used to help triage cases in Libya’s fight against COVID-19.
Given Libya’s relatively high proportion of smartphone connectivity, the Speetar platform is being used by the Libyan Health Ministry to help decide who needs to go to the clinic and who should continue to self-isolate at home. (The story was originally published on Forbes.com)