New apps are using social media, doctors’ reports, and crowdsourcing to keep track of the spread of illnesses such as the flu, strep throat, and mononucleosis.
Worried about catching the flu? Minimizing your risk could be as simple as checking your smartphone.
A new mobile app called Doctors Report Illness Tracker collects data on a variety of diseases from 1 million doctors’ offices nationally. Users can search destinations by zip code to get information on the prevalence of the flu and other illnesses, including strep, bronchitis, pneumonia, conjunctivitis, mononucleosis, common cold and cold symptoms, sinusitis, croup, Lyme disease, ear infections, MRSA, RSV, and gastroenteritis.
App creator Dan Shaw said parents whose children have a travel soccer game can use the app to determine if there’s a flu outbreak in the town they’re visiting, for example.
“The Doctors Report website and app is for everyone, from parents of young children trying to avoid illnesses like strep, or senior citizens and people with chronic conditions like asthma who try hard to manage their exposure to health risks, to just someone planning a business trip or a vacation,” said Shaw. “Doctors themselves can benefit by having ready access to fresh information they can use to advise patients.”
The data used by the app, which currently has about 3,000 installed users according to Apptopia, comes from “the everyday process of patients visiting their doctor at an office, clinic, or hospital setting,” Shaw told Healthline.
Doctors Report looks at about 70 percent of all healthcare claims data submitted to private and government payers, Shaw noted.
Nearly all doctors and healthcare providers contribute information to the database, which includes diagnosis data from nearly 1 billion doctors’ visits annually.
Other mobile apps and devices take differing approaches to predicting illness patterns.
Sickweather monitors social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter for posts on illness, including mentions of the flu or common cold.
“Crowdsourcing gives you a more well-rounded picture of what’s going on in each area,” Graham Dodge, chief executive officer of Sickweather, told Healthline. “People can be complaining about symptoms weeks before they see a doctor, so there’s a two- to four-week window of opportunity to capture information on people who are experiencing illness.”
Dodge said the “sick zone” reports delivered to app users are based on data from about 6 million social media accounts, as well as subscribers to the Weather Channel (whose national flu map is generated from Sickweather data) and reports from app users themselves.
Apptopia reported that the Sickweather app, launched in 2013 on iOS and 2014 on Android, has about 95,000 regular monthly users.
Kinsa, a maker of digital thermometers, recently launched Kinsa Insights, which gathers temperature and fever data from its devices to predict illness trends.
Kinsa officials said Insight’s predictive prowess equals that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Plus, it’s in real time rather than the two- to six-week lag common with other reporting systems.
Flu Near You is a voluntary, crowdsourced database of flu activity that’s also searchable by zip code.
It was developed by epidemiologists at Harvard, Boston Children’s Hospital, and The Skoll Global Threats Fund.
The website and app pair with HealthMap, which uses GPS to warn users of its mobile app of local disease outbreaks.
These devices and data sources are slowly being integrated.
Users of smart thermometers, including Kinsa’s, can now pair their devices with Sickweather to track fevers and illness, for example.
In addition to preventing infection, the predictive information from these apps can also influence decision-making after someone gets sick.
Dodge gives the example of a mother whose son developed a fever a few days after she received a Sickweather alert about a local outbreak of streptococcus (strep throat).
The warning prompted her to take her child to a doctor and get a throat culture, which confirmed a diagnosis of strep.
“Otherwise, she might have assumed it was something viral” and skipped the doctor’s visit, Dodge said. “Having that hyper-local information in real time makes you a lot more aware.”
Dodge acknowledged concerns about predictive apps causing needless fear among users, but he said on balance that he believes the information they provide is more helpful than harmful.
“We’ve heard from people with health phobias who rely on the app to let them know that it’s safe to go outside,” he said.
In the future, apps will tap into even greater data pools and integration will improve.
“They are going to be extremely powerful,” said Sarah Kohl, a physician and travel health specialist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“When you look at social media, you’re looking at the leading edge of an outbreak,” she told Healthline. “Reports from the CDC are more accurate, but they are yesterday’s news.”
For example, Kohl said that studies of the Ebola outbreak showed that social media reports preceded reported cases of the disease.
“People talked about it before it was reported officially,” she said.
“I wouldn’t base all of my health decisions on these apps, but if I got an alert I might look into it further,” said Kohl. “It really will help people when they travel.”