Smartphones Can Boost Public Health Tracking in the U.S


In 2019, nearly three quarters of the U.S. population, approximately 266 million, owned a smartphone. These incredibly powerful devices are in the hands of an overwhelming majority of people in the United States, and yet, even in this time of pandemic crisis, we aren’t fully harnessing their potential power.

It’s an opportunity of gigantic proportion lost.

With today’s technological capabilities, we can use apps to geo-locate individuals and allow users to anonymously enter relevant data about symptoms that may reflect a COVID-19 infection. As medical experts tell us, this may be a dry cough, or difficulty breathing, or a fever. Such apps already exist.

Additionally, smartphone users may use one of several automatic temperature detectors available today or use home thermometers to record their temperatures. Apps then could capture other data relevant to determining risk — for example, age, recent travel history, and the presence of underlying conditions such as cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure. The data would be recorded voluntarily by citizens, engaging in citizen science to advance the cause of crisis management and scientific research.

Our smartphones are capable of so much more — including contact tracing, which has been used successfully in other countries to stop the coronavirus’ spread. As soon as a patient tests positive for COVID-19, this tool can use cellphone data to track everyone the patient has come in contact with, swiftly alerting them to their potential risks and urging them to self-isolate. This process, which can take days if done manually, can be done in seconds.

These real-time data could help inform decisions that are being made every minute.

This is the era of big data and analytics and machine learning. Our computer scientists and other researchers know how to develop predictive models. As the incidence of infection reveals itself, we could be building a treasure trove of “training data” for predictive models and algorithms. We can use this data to construct models that will help us forecast where and when the next positive cases will occur.

As more data become available, (as many experts suggest with the expected spike in infections), our models will become more precise in their predictions. We may even be able to better understand the relationship between specific individual characteristics and the likelihood of a severe infection or mortality.

There is much complexity and nuance in what I am proposing. Of course, we should worry about data privacy and protection. We must be concerned that such a capability may not serve the needs of vulnerable populations and the less fortunate and may further exacerbate the medical digital divide. Still, I take comfort in data from the Pew Research Center showing a “sharp uptick” in ownership of smartphones among both low-income and older populations. And I take comfort in what we now can do in predictive modeling.

Already, in countries around the world, technology is being used to safeguard public health. In Thailand, the DGHP-Farmer & Rabies smartphone app allows agriculture workers to report human, poultry and swine illnesses with a few screen taps. In Kenya, Washington State University and the Global Health Security Agenda collaborated on a mobile app that allows veterinary workers to enter, transmit and analyze data about outbreaks from their smartphones.

In Guatemala, the CDC and public health officials created a system that allowed people to use simple text messaging technology to help officials track potential flu outbreaks. In the United States, meanwhile, apps such as BlueStar help patients with specific conditions such as Type 2 diabetes record their data and share it with clinicians. We now need to scale up.

Crises like the one brought by the COVID-19 pandemic should remind us that the power of technology should not be used simply to discover nano-second arbitrage opportunities in financial markets. Let’s put our innovations to work for societal welfare.

The current crisis will eventually pass, after having extracted a huge human toll. We must be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Ritu Agarwal is interim dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She also is the Robert H. Smith Dean’s Chair of Information Systems and founding director of the school’s Center for Health Information and Decision Systems.

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