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The innovation tsunami saving lives

Flu trackers — the pedestrian term for epidemiologists who chart disease patterns across the world -- now have an unlikely tool in Twitter to cut to the chase. Sanchita Sharma writes.

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2012 23:13 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Flu trackers — the pedestrian term for epidemiologists who chart disease patterns across the world -- now have an unlikely tool in Twitter to cut to the chase. Taking social media a step ahead from its proven resource as a mirror of public mood and opinion, Japan’s using a tweet-fuelled infection-tracking tool called Kazemill to scour Twitter once an hour for people tweeting about cold, flu and other symptoms. It then plots the data collected on a geographical map in real-time. The result is quite like the weather map you see on television.

This social media-powered technology, which was developed by ad agency McCann Healthcare Worldwide for the Tokyo-based pharma major SSP, is smart enough to distinguish between people using Twitter to complain of mild aches and pains and those actually presenting symptoms of an illness and can be used to track and forecast infectious diseases spreading across the world.

In a parallel experiment, the National Institute of Informatics Chiyoda-ku, Hitotsubashi, again in Japan, tracked over 1.5 million tweets in English and Japanese for March and May 2011 to measure awareness and anxiety levels in the Tokyo metropolitan district about the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear emergency. The findings showed close correspondence between Twitter data and earthquake events, prompting researchers to conclude that tweets can be a useful resource for tracking the public mood of people affected by natural disasters as well as an early warning system of their concerns.

"Technology using social media engages people in their own health and democratises disease-tracking. Innovations such as SSP's Kazemill to map flu and cold outbreaks hold great promise to help people avoid disease outbreaks," said Lee Shapiro, president, Allscripts, at the 3rd International Conference on Transforming Healthcare with IT in Hyderabad. It's well established that innovative technologies can leapfrog hurdles in healthcare delivery, such as medical staff shortages and undependable infrastructure. The shift from building brick and mortar hospitals to using technology for healthcare delivery has begun. "Fortunately, technology use is already high in India. What is required now is synergy between healthcare players and patients so that care can be moved from hospitals to clinics to homes," said Dr Prathap Reddy, executive chairman, Apollo Hospitals Group, where digital delivery is actively used to add to the 26 million people from 120 countries who have been treated at its 54 hospitals in India, Mauritius, Bangladesh and Oman. Though social media as a health tool is yet to be used in India, four other models of digital healthcare are already transforming healthcare across the country.

Telehealth is extending the reach of providers to cross geographical limitations and treat a lot more people from thousands of kilometres away. Then there is mobile health, where applications that engage patients to record medical information and parameters on smartphones through the day -- such as medication dose, sugar levels, blood pressure, sleep patterns, diet, etc -- are being used by doctors to get improved information on health fluctuations and compliance to medicines. Next comes information clarity, where clinical information on patients going to different doctors is taken from disparate systems, sifted and customised to give a ‘single view' of the patient to different doctors. For example, all laboratory data from cardiology, nephrology and endocrinology shows up as a single report for, say, a surgeon reviewing the patient before surgery.

Last is the use of technology for analytics. With most doctors presented with piles of reports, using it right becomes vital. Making data actionable for signs of clinical deterioration based on a health score that uses real-time physical and mental indicators helps doctors respond to an emergency within minutes. That alone, as we all know, will save very many lives.

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