Outsmarting the flu: App developed in Cincinnati aims to track the flu and rein in its spread

CINCINNATI - Flu outbreaks are nothing to sneeze at. They can cause schools to shut down, workplaces to slow down, and healthcare facilities to fill up. Public health experts believe that if we knew more about when and where flu outbreaks occur, the ill effects could be minimized by educating healthy people in the area to take extra precautions.

That’s the thinking behind OutSmart Flu, a new app being tested this flu season on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The app was developed at the Cincinnati office of Survey Analytics in collaboration with Dr. Ajay K. Sethi, an associate professor of Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. 

“If we can record the data in real time through the students’ mobile phones, we are cutting down on the time of reporting and awareness," said Greg Bender, the Survey Analytics employee who helped customize the OutSmart Flu app for Sethi’s research.

Finding and fighting flu

At the end of September, Sethi and doctoral student Christine Muganda launched a campus-wide effort to encourage students at the University of Wisconsin to download OutSmart Flu app to their iOS or Android devices. Students who participate in the research are entered in three $500 raffles that will be held during the school year.

Participants use the app to report when they start having flu-like symptoms (such as fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, headaches, diarrhea and vomiting). They also have the option to report when they are feeling well.

If a huge spike in influenza is detected in one part of campus, students in that area can be alerted to take extra precautions to avoid spreading the flu.

If the project proceeds as expected, the University will be able to pinpoint flu outbreaks faster than FluView, the influenza surveillance report published weekly by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in Atlanta.

The CDC report compiles data from about 3,000 state and local health departments, public health laboratories, healthcare providers, emergency departments, and other sources. It takes about 20 days for the CDC and its partners to gather and analyze the data and publicly identify an outbreak. During that time, the flu continues to spread within the community.

According to Sethi, UW-Madison’s University Health Services (UHS) is one of the CDC sentinel sites.

“The CDC method relies on counting the number of students walking into UHS seeking healthcare for influenza-like illness,” he said, adding that early awareness of outbreaks can help healthcare providers be better prepared a handle a sudden spurt of flu cases.

Outperforming the CDC

Worldwide interest in “mHealth” (public health practice supported by mobile devices) was piqued in 2010, after Google showed it could identify epidemic flu in the U.S. two weeks earlier than the CDC method simply by tracking the number of people who went online to research health information related to flu-like symptoms before seeing a doctor.

Using a mobile app such as OutSmart Flu to crowdsource symptoms could prove to be even more timely and accurate in identifying local outbreaks.

“We believe that through self-reporting we can cut the CDC reporting lag time significantly,” Bender said.

While none of the Tri-State-area colleges has approached Survey Analytics about similar projects, Bender believes a university is an ideal place to test this type of health reporting.

Campus as a testing ground

College campuses are confined universes populated by people who are heavy users of mobile technology. Flu outbreaks are common on campus because many students live in close quarters and don’t feel the need to get flu shots. If students are sidelined with the flu for a week, they miss classes, exams, and the many campus events scheduled in a typical 16-week semester.

The data collected through the 2013-14 school year will be published on the University of Wisconsin website,"  Sethi said. “We will be comparing findings from OutSmart Flu with University Health Services records on campus flu activity at UW Madison. From there, we can determine if the smartphone app and the power of social action is a faster way to track and monitor influenza.”

“We’re quite sure other universities around the country will be interested,” said Survey Analytics CEO Andrew Jeavons. He noted that similar apps could be developed and used anywhere epidemiologists want to track the spread of a disease in a large population.

Next page: The government shutdown affects flu data

“The number one benefit of the OutSmart Flu app is real-time reporting and community involvement,” Bender said. “It’s a crowdsourcing initiative that enables real-time data input and analysis.” By taking lag time out of the process, the type of app can save lives by improving speed to treatment.

FluView on hold due to shutdown

Because of the government shutdown, the CDC hasn’t updated its FluView report since the week that ended Sept. 21. Relying on centralized data reporting wouldn’t be an issue if local health agencies could gather data and monitor disease outbreaks in their own communities.

Bender believes collecting data via mobile devices represents the future of surveying because information is collected at the time of the experience. Instead of waiting and hoping people will respond to surveys later on, when they are less involved, Bender said, “You can get data from people when they need to share it—which is where Survey Analytics’ mobile technology comes in.”

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