“The fact that we were able to predict influenza outbreaks faster than China’s national surveillance programs really shows the capacity for everyday, wearable digital health devices to track the spread of disease at the population level,” said Yulin Hswen, lead author on the study and research fellow at Boston Children’s Computational Epidemiology Group.
This is the first instance that Boston Children’s Hospital has been able to predict outbreaks through an integrated wearable device and online tool. It previously predicted and tracked diseases through social media, according to a March press release.
“Collectively, we are still coming to terms with the data deluge from wearable devices, but it is imperative that we begin to generate value from this data,” said Jared Hawkins, senior author and director of informatics at Boston Children’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA). “From a public health perspective – as we have shown with this latest study – there is enormous potential for tapping this data for research, surveillance and influencing policy.”
The influenza-detecting device, deemed Thermia, is a fever educational tool that can work as a standalone digital application or can get temperature readings from a child directly through the iThermonitor. The iThermonitor is an FDA-approved wearable thermometer that is a patch worn under the arm. Boston Children’s Hospital and the iThermonitor’s manufacturer Raiing Medical have a licensing agreement that allows the two to be integrated.
In the study, data from China’s Thermia users was collected from nearly 45,000 data points between the 2014 and 2016. The data showed that outbreaks of illnesses closely resembling influenza could be detected digitally in real-time. When compared to surveillance data gathered by the National health and Family Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China, iThermonitor and Thermia were able to predict outbreaks a month earlier.
“Delays in clinically-reported data and lack of data availability contribute to the challenges of identifying outbreaks rapidly,” said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s and director of the Computation Epidemiology Lab and IDHA. “As a result, we have more and more opportunities to use real-time, low-cost digital solutions like Thermia to improve disease surveillance.”
Traditional disease surveillance programs are prone to having lag times, according to the researchers, and typically rely on confirmed cases in children as seen by a clinician.
The CDC reports there is a five week lag between data and when it is reported. It is one of the largest and most timely surveillance systems of the organization, gathering statistics from 122 cities, 145 laboratories and 3,000 outpatient healthcare providers throughout the U.S.
“In geographically large and densely populated countries like China, tools like Thermia can provide better on-the-ground disease surveillance than by relying on data that is only captured at the point of treatment in the clinic,” said Hswen.
It is estimated that millions of people in the U.S. have the flu annually with hundreds of thousands being hospitalized for it and thousands or ten to thousands dying from it.
Recently, Stanford University researchers also discovered that wearable fitness trackers were able to determine when someone was coming down with an illness. Irregular measurements and patterns were able to be matched with different health problems.
The study was published online in the American Journal of Public Health.
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