Innovators at the Forefront of Disease Mapping
Many companies have seen the possibilities of social media in disease mapping and are well on their way to creating apps and software that can help communities, healthcare providers and government agencies understand where the next disease outbreaks are likely to occur.
On the heels of the surprising prediction of the Guinea Ebola outbreak, HealthMap surged to the forefront in the field of disease mapping with social media. HealthMap takes information garnered from social media sites, compares that to government reports, blogs, online chat rooms and local news reports – in 15 different languages – and forms a rather accurate picture of where outbreaks are happening.
John Brownstein, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School’s Center for BioInformatics and one of the founders of HealthMap, admitted to MedPageToday that there are some false positives in the mix, but by using machine learning, the site has obtained a 95 percent accuracy rate in their assessment of disease outbreaks.
HealthMap is also branching out into apps that allow individuals to actively participate in reporting flu and other symptoms. Flu Near You, an app that asks users to self-report how they feel in a weekly survey, analyzes the results and maps where flu outbreaks are happening. The app is administered in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund – an indication that government agencies recognize the potential benefits of searching social media for quick information on illnesses.
SickWeather looks for tweets and Facebook posts that reference particular illnesses, such as influenza or pneumonia. The information is then geotagged and plotted on a map. By watching the mapped data change over time, SickWeather can estimate the spread of the problem, and then predict where it might go in the near future. In 2012, the app detected the start of flu season six weeks before the CDC recognized it, according to the Washington Post.
Risks and Challenges of Mapping Disease
Unfortunately, not all social media tools are accurate in depicting disease outbreaks. Google Flu Trends was one of the unfortunate apps that suffered a very public failure right out of the gate. The system relied on search terms to determine which parts of the country showed the highest interest in flu symptoms and treatments. Unfortunately, the algorithm led to a serious overestimation of the flu virus, which in turn led to some embarrassment for the company.
Sometimes the public’s panic at the idea of a serious disease outbreak can influence the results of disease mapping software. According to Newsweek, during the fall of 2014, a high number of news reports on suspected Ebola cases in New York City led HealthMap to declare that area one of “high activity” – even though at that time, there were no confirmed cases in the state.. False-positive reports like that could lead to even more panic in a situation where the public needs to stay calm in order to most effectively fight the outbreak.
The best of intentions might also lead to problems, especially in the world of mental health and social media. The Samaritans, a suicide-prevention group based in Britain, released a free app that would allow users insight of when their friends were down and needed a boost. The app worked by tracking worrisome phrases such as “hate myself” or “tired of being alone.” The problem? What could work well for some might be dangerous for others, as it could let stalkers or others with ill will know when their victim was feeling most vulnerable. As a result, the app was disabled within a matter of weeks, according to The Bulletin.
What Disease Mapping Means for the Future of Healthcare
Disease mapping has definitely gotten the attention of those in high places. The National Institutes of Health pledged $11 million to support studies into social media that might help pinpoint and treat substance abuse. UNICEF invested money to help healthcare workers gain access to mobile health platforms in places like Uganda, where real-time information can be crucial to help curb outbreaks of disease, according to mHealthNews. Numerous researchers are jumping into studies about social media and disease tracking, hoping to create the next big app that makes a difference.
One of the most important aspects of disease mapping through social media is the ability for healthcare systems to prepare for what’s coming. Having faster data can help hospitals prepare for an outbreak with extra beds, supplies, staff and medicine, according to the Washington Post. In addition, a marked increase in the number of posts about chronic issues, such as diabetes or heart disease, can point to areas of the world that need more educational resources to help patients combat the problem.
Disease mapping is very attractive for its timeliness and ability to allow for preparation, but it can also be used on a much wider scale. Tracking prescription drug abuse, obesity rates, potential suicide cases, domestic violence, problems following natural disasters and even comments about antibiotics can tell researchers a great deal about which parts of the world need more attention from government agencies and healthcare providers. As disease mapping becomes even more accurate and timely, it might even be possible to save lives by nipping an outbreak in the bud.