Social media, iPhone app aid efforts to crowdsource disease surveillance

When a doctor gets a patient with meningitis, she can use a new iPhone app to report the case and location. If the app catches on around the world, as the developers of the app hope, the mobile software could support a global system for real-time infectious disease surveillance.

The University of Liverpool, which developed the app called ClickClinica, isn't alone in the quest to use new information technologies to help track and prevent the spread of infectious bugs. At Kansas State University, researchers are leading an effort to study the use of social media to get the word out about bugs. It's a work in progress, but the study could lead to better models and approaches to use online tools to prevent outbreaks of, say, the flu.

More than 1,000 users have downloaded the University of Liverpool's free app, with physicians around the world beginning to report diseases. The developers see an opportunity for the app to improve reporting of infectious diseases after research found that one in 10 cases of meningitis weren't reported to the Health Protection Agency, an independent group that the U.K. government set up in 2003 to protect the public from infectious diseases and other health threats.

"In order to improve the quality of healthcare … and understand the spread of infectious diseases, like meningitis, notification to the proper authority is crucial to make sure that we continue to provide a world-class health service, including tracking and responding to the threats posed by the spread of new and resistant infections," stated Dr. Benedict Michael of the University of Liverpool.

Beyond reporting, the app provides guidance on treatments such as antibiotics that doctors can use to combat infections. And there's an automated element, too, that sends the doctor's information and location to a central database. This could help keep cases of scary infections from going unreported. 

- here's the University of Liverpool's release
- see the release from Kansas State University
- check out The Guardian's article on the app

Special Reports: Mobile phone apps - 10 trends in diagnostics | Slideshow: 15 mobile apps in Life Sciences - 2012