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How Panama Boosted COVID testing with Survey123 and Make

Apr 15, 2021 | 4 minutes

Few times in recent history have been more dreadful than the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For governments and companies, this period carried the gloomy quality of a twisted, real-life Choose Your Own Adventure book. 

One wrong turn, and it's a disaster.

The phenomenon took place in virtually every single area one can think of. 

From education to communications and ordering systems, nearly everything had to be reconsidered, adapted, and pivoted in a matter of weeks. 

As you know, technology has been at the center of these transformations. So much, that it’s hard to imagine how things would’ve turned out without tools like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or even Netflix.  

Today, we are bringing you one of these stories. In this case study, we will show you how Panama’s Ministry of Health used a simple tech stack to improve their COVID emergency response in a matter of days.

Most importantly, this is a tale of resiliency and humanity. 

Let’s take a look at it.   

Difficult times call for simple solutions

If there’s a verb to condense the actions of governments, businesses, and people during the early stages of the pandemic, that is “scrambling”. 

Companies were scrambling to go remote. 

People were scrambling to adapt. 

Governments were scrambling to act on many different fronts. 

At the same time, everyone was scrambling for survival. 

In the case of Panama’s Ministry of Health, authorities found themselves scrambling for a solution to the following problems: 

  1. Understanding the spread and behavior of the virus

  2. Deploying an appropriate response in terms of testing and patient care

These problems presented a series of bottlenecks. The most important one was the (lack of) a fast, simple, and cost-effective data collection and processing system. 

This is what they did to create one out of the blue.

Leaving the paper trail behind

Up until the early days of March 2020, Panama was relying on phone calls and paper to collect COVID-related information. 

This soon proved ineffective. The virus was spreading faster than the information, which blocked any type of logical response to the situation. 

With no time to waste, the Ministry of Health made its first move by incorporating a WhatsApp chatbot called ROSA

A telemedicine bot, ROSA was the first step towards understanding the situation in the field. Along with ROSA, the government deployed a series of call centers to accelerate its data-gathering efforts.

However, this led to a new bottleneck. Effectively, more data was being collected, but this did not translate into better service times. 

A simple yet impactful process was then implemented. 

Digital forms, automation, and workflows for better healthcare

The new solution consisted of a system for dispatching covid test requests through an operations center. 

At the same time, two options were deployed to execute this strategy:

  • COVID testing at designated healthcare facilities (for people who asked for a test)

  • Home testing using quick response teams (for people who couldn’t leave their homes)

In both cases, all health personnel were provided with mobile devices featuring the ArcGIS Survey123 app. In addition, ArcGIS Workforce (a dispatch system) was also used to coordinate home visits.

The resulting flow consisted of the following steps and actions: 

  • Step 1: Survey123 was used to record interactions with citizens and gather data. With the data, health authorities routed people to health centers, or appointed home testing visits 

  • Step 2: When the health center option was enabled, all the information was filled out in survey123

  • Step 3: Make automatically generates a document containing the date, time, and place of the testing appointment. Copies of the document are sent to the authorities and the patient via email, along with the appointment details. 

  • Step 4: Once the person arrives at the testing site center, he/she shows the digital document that was forwarded earlier. 

Thanks to this flow, people with testing appointments had to wait less than 10 minutes to be tested. 

A small, but important victory. But there’s more. 

To help labs process more tests, a printed report with the citizen's basic information and the code of the applied test became necessary. 

To solve this, virtual directories were created in OneDrive, one for each test site. In them, templated MS Word reports specifying the daily tests were stored. These docs were printed and delivered to the laboratories along with the tests on a daily basis. 

Home testing, on the other hand, required a different flow. 

When these were required, all requests were first geo-referenced. Then, dispatchers sent dedicated response teams. 

Once the tests were performed, the process followed the same path as before: automatically generated documents classified by region were sent to laboratories for testing.

The results of implementing this app-powered COVID testing system workflows were quite impressive. 

From days to hours

According to Panama’s Ministry of Health, the response times for home visits were first reduced from 5 days to 3 days

Later on, after everyone had grown accustomed to the changes, response times for home visits went down to 12 hours on average.

That’s 90% less time than before. Not too shabby!

By implementing testing centers, the Ministry of Health was able to serve more citizens. Lab test results also saw a significant decrease in delivery times.  

The main impact, however, was bigger than expected. The solutions were instrumental in unlocking a culture of operational effectiveness in health professionals.

By getting everyone to move past traditional data collection methods at the same time, express digital transformation was successfully achieved

A few weeks later, the workflows and apps were producing more and better data, allowing for:

  • A successful COVID testing strategy

  • Better care for the entire country

  • A work culture shift in health professionals 

Simple apps like Make and Survey123 can lead to big changes. And even so, there is still room for extra gains and unexpected, yet positive surprises. 

Happy automating!


Martin Etchegaray

Content Manager and Senior Editor at Make. I enjoy writing and reading about history, science, and tech.

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