How tech used to track the flu could change the game for public health response

Cathie Anderson in the Sacramento Bee: “Tech entrepreneurs and academic researchers are tracking the spread of flu in real-time, collecting data from social media and internet-connected devices that show startling accuracy when compared against surveillance data that public health officials don’t report until a week or two later….

Smart devices and mobile apps have the potential to reshape public health alerts and responses,…, for instance, the staff of smart thermometer maker Kinsa were receiving temperature readings that augured the surge of flu patients in emergency rooms there.

Kinsa thermometers are part of the movement toward the Internet of Things – devices that automatically transmit information to a database. No personal information is shared, unless users decide to input information such as age and gender. Using data from more than 1 million devices in U.S. homes, the staff is able to track fever as it hits and use an algorithm to estimate impact for a broader population….

Computational researcher Aaron Miller worked with an epidemiological team at the University of Iowa to assess the feasibility of using Kinsa data to forecast the spread of flu. He said the team first built a model using surveillance data from the CDC and used it to forecast the spread of influenza. Then the team created a model where they integrated the data from Kinsa along with that from the CDC.

“We got predictions that were … 10 to 50 percent better at predicting the spread of flu than when we used CDC data alone,” Miller said. “Potentially, in the future, if you had granular information from the devices and you had enough information, you could imagine doing analysis on a really local level to inform things like school closings.”

While Kinsa uses readings taken in homes, academic researchers and companies such as are using crowdsourcing from social media networks to provide information on the spread of flu. Siddharth Shah, a transformational health industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, pointed to an award-winning international study led by researchers at Northeastern University that tracked flu through Twitter posts and other key parameters of flu.

When compared with official influenza surveillance systems, the researchers said, the model accurately forecast the evolution of influenza up to six weeks in advance, much earlier than prior models. Such advance warnings would give health agencies significantly more time to expand upon medical resources or to alert the public to measures they can take to prevent transmission of the disease….

For now, Shah said, technology will probably only augment or complement traditional public data streams. However, he added, innovations already are changing how diseases are tracked. Chronic disease management, for instance, is going digital with devices such as Omada health that helps people with Type 2 diabetes better manage health challenges and Noom, a mobile app that helps people stop dieting and instead work toward true lifestyle change….(More).