The Fax About Tracking Covid A deep learning system for sorting critical Covid-19 cases.

Reading time
2 min read
Covid Fast Fax operating

A pair of neural networks is helping to prioritize Covid-19 cases for contact tracing.

What’s new: The public health department of California’s Contra Costa County is using deep learning to sort Covid-19 cases reported via the pre-internet technology known as fax.

How it works: Hospitals and medical labs document cases of coronavirus infection using hand-written forms. Many transmit the documents to public health officials over telephone landlines. Stanford University researchers developed Covid Fast Fax to evaluate them so that public health workers, who still manually review each case, can spot the most critical ones. The system comprises two convolutional neural networks.

  • One model culls Covid-19 reports from other incoming faxes. The researchers trained it using 25,000 copies of the five forms used most frequently by area hospitals. They augmented the dataset by adding blurs, streaks, and other distortions commonly seen in fax transmissions.
  • The second model determines which reports are most urgent. It ranks the severity of each case by reading checkboxes that indicate a patient’s symptoms, gender, isolation status, and other details. To train it, the researchers wrote 130 fake reports, transmitted them by fax, and augmented them by flipping, blurring, and adding noise.
  • The researchers evaluated their system on 1,224 faxes received over a two week period. The system was able to read 88 percent of the documents. Of these, it detected Covid-19 reports with 91 percent recall, a measurement for accuracy that docks the model for mislabeling high-priority cases.

Behind the news: The use of fax in health care persists despite billions of dollars to promote digital health records. Digital systems face roadblocks, as many professionals find them difficult to use, and for-profit hospitals aren’t always eager to make it easy for patients to share their information with competitors.

Why it matters: According to a 2019 survey, 89 percent of U.S. health organizations still rely on fax to transmit medical information. Anything that accelerates the processing of that information is a plus — especially during a pandemic.

We’re thinking: It’s 2021, and hospitals are still relying on fax to make critical decisions? AI can help hospitals cope with outmoded communications technology, but it’s no substitute for updating U.S. health care infrastructure.


Subscribe to The Batch

Stay updated with weekly AI News and Insights delivered to your inbox