Thursday, March 15, 2012

How mobile phones improve public health

Smartphones and cell phones are increasingly playing a role in public health. Combine a smartphone with crowdsourcing and infectious diseases, for example, and you end up with a novel concept called participatory epidemiology. The Outbreaks Near Me app for iPhone and Android, for example, released during the swine flu epidemic in 2009, collects data from users and from the media to track the flu and other diseases in every part of the country. Install the app and you can see what disease might be tearing through your city right now (in my neck of the woods, it's the highly contagious Norovirus).

Mobile phones are also used to manage the response after disasters and disease outbreaks. In an interesting article about participatory epidemiology written by the creator of Outbreaks Near Me, the authors cite applications such as Ushahidi, used to manage the response after the Haitian earthquake in 2010, and GeoChat, used to track diseases in Southeast Asia (you can read about the pros and cons of participatory epidemiology in the article "Participatory Epidemiology: Use of Mobile Phones for Community-Based Health Reporting").

For health care providers in resource-poor countries, tracking data on a smartphone is actually easier than tracking it on paper, according to a study released by the CDC this week ("Smartphones more accurate, faster, cheaper for disease surveillance").  In the study, providers collected data for questionnaires about influenza in Kenya using either smartphones or paper forms. The smartphone data was more thorough and (since it was digital) quicker to access in a database than data recorded on paper. What's more, the 2-year cost of implementing smartphones to fill out these questionnaires was also lower than the cost of collecting the data on paper.

More widespread collection of health care data can serve the public good. Perhaps that's how health care data should be seen: as a public asset that we can all contribute to and that we all benefit from. As more health care data is digitized for easier access by public health officials and other entities, however, it becomes increasingly important to protect the privacy of each contributor.

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