Three ways to manage swine flu through mHealth

By Brian Dolan

Brian DolanWhat role can mobile phones play in saving lives during a swine flu outbreak? Three companies in the mHealth industry have spoken out this week about the opportunity mobiles could play in mitigating the risk of a pandemic disease like swine flu. mHealth could help public health officials better collect data, could help slow the spread of the flu through remote monitoring, and could help keep people aware of where swine flu diagnoses had been made through the use of mobile phone-based social networks with GPS "bookmarks."'s Joel Selanikio, who just won this year's $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, used the official announcement of his winning the award to point out that his EpiSurveyor, mobile phone software, may work well in emerging markets, but developing countries aren't the only ones who could use help routinely collecting their own national-level health statistics.

"As the global financial crisis and disease outbreaks like the swine flu place heavy burdens on already taxed healthcare systems, new technology-based solutions hold enormous potential to help overcoming challenges such as a shortage of doctors or access to remote environments with limited infrastructure," Datadyne wrote in a press release.

Datadyne has helped equipped public health workers with PDAs loaded with EpiSurveyor software to create a more regular and timely stream of public health information as well as an easier way to organize and manage emergency immunization campaigns, like the emergency polio vaccination campaign that is currently immunizing more than 2 million children in Kenya. 

IBM's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Bakalar agrees that mHealth can help manage swine flu: "Look at our current situation with swine flu," Bakalar said this week during a panel discussion at ATA. "If we were to have a pandemic outbreak of swine flu, it would be better to take care of those patients through home healthcare technology" instead of bringing them into the clinical setting where the flu could just continue to spread.

Bakalar said that the management of swine flu is a perfect example of why we need to de-centralize healthcare in some situations. Care needs to be extended beyond the four walls of the hospital or doctor's office and find a place in the patient's home, too.

Bakalar ended his comments on swine flu with a powerful message: "We need to train as we fight," he said. Bakalar explained that we need to change the general behavior of the population to get used to monitoring health choices and care regimens for chronic diseases and/or just general health indicators the "worried well". Once we train the population to use these home health services, we would be in a better position to apply those home health skills to potential emergency situations like the swine flu.

During another session at ATA this week, Telcordia's Senior Scientist George Collier used Whrrl, a mobile-phone based GPS-enabled social network as an example of the kind of Web 2.0 app that public health officials could emulate. Whrrl allows users to "bookmark" different locations with comments, reviews, notes, whatever -- and then share those bookmarks with friends or the community of Whrrl users at large. It's like a highly interactive Google Map that's completely accessible and share-able from your mobile phone.

It's not hard to make the leap from Whrrl's restaurant review GPS "bookmarks" to ones that inform the public of potential health hazards. Imagine a GPS-enabled public health application that shows where cases of swine flu have been diagnosed -- it could even send a text message to users when they get close to an area where swine flu had been diagnosed. That way people in those areas or traveling through those areas can take extra precautions.