When winter hits and temperatures plummet, parents are often stuck indoors with their children. Outdoor activities get replaced by trips to the mall and playdates at the local Chuck E. Cheese. Parents are often armed with hand sanitizer and moist towelettes – their defenses against the common cold, flu and stomach virus that could be lurking around every counter, button or door handle. But the latest tools in their arsenal may be found right on their smartphones.
The Sickweather app scours social media for people posting about being ill. So each time a mom or dad laments about their son or daughter’s stuffy nose on Facebook, or when a teenager tweets about taking a sick day, app users can see it reflected in the forecast of illnesses based on their geographic area. Reports of sickness can also be added directly to the app, skipping the step of a social media post.
“There was no reference tool available that was aggregating acute symptomatic illnesses at a local level that was relevant to me, let alone in real-time,” said Graham Dodge, co-founder and CEO of Sickweather app. He came up with the idea while trying to determine whether he was ill with a stomach virus or food poisoning. “I happened to be on Facebook that day and saw a friend nearby posting about the same symptoms. That’s when it occurred to me, based on my background in working with crime data, that social media could be ubiquitous enough to provide disease surveillance, if filtered correctly.”
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Although the app is not an authority on sickness or outbreaks it does give providers some valuable clues by crowdsourcing more than 2 million illness reports each month, according to the Sickweather website.1
“It’s a great reference tool to see which symptoms and illnesses are trending in your area for added perspective on the symptoms others are experiencing in the region in real-time, and how other patients may be getting diagnosed in your area,” explained Dodge.
If multiple people are posting about having flu-like symptoms near the neighborhood grocery store, it might be worth it to pick up milk and eggs elsewhere.
“I believe awareness is key to illness prevention and education about healthy habits,” stressed Carol Bush, BS, RN, who has worked in oncology for more than 20 years and uses Sickweather daily before running errands or traveling. “For immunocompromised patients like the elderly and those undergoing chemotherapy, this type of information is extremely helpful to prevent illness.”
The app also tracks food poisoning, which could be a crucial tool to alert people of possible E. coli outbreaks like the ones that broke out in more than 10 Chipotle locations across the U.S. in 2015.2
It can also encourage people to visit their provider to get their symptoms checked out if they’re trying to decide if their cough, ache or pain is worth a trip to the doctor’s office. If others are posting about the same kind of symptoms, the answer is probably yes.
When a parent does call a healthcare provider to explain their child’s symptoms, that provider will usually ask if the child is running a fever.
“Generally temperatures are such an indication of illness. We have higher temperatures for certain viruses, we have lower temperatures in babies sometimes when they’re getting very sick,” explained Aarti Nasta, MD, FAAP, who runs the pediatric component of Bay Area Pregnancy & Fertility specialists, called Treating the Whole Child. “A virus versus bacteria – it’s very hard to tell just based on temperature, but temperature curve is really important.
Nasta recommends the Kinsa thermometer to many of her patients who ask about reliable thermometers. The device plugs into a smartphone and the accompanying app keeps a history of temperature readings, which provides a bigger picture of a patient’s symptoms. This type of reporting can help Nasta or other providers decide the next step in treatment.
This type of thermometer could benefit families with newborns in particular, to help them establish a baseline measurement.
“If a baby just always runs a higher 98 or 99 temp, when they’re at that temp we don’t start worrying,” explained Nasta.
The Kinsa has a 10-second average read time and patients have the option of emailing their reading directly to their provider.3
In addition to Kinsa and Sickweather, parents and providers can get alerts about public health sent right to their smartphones by signing up for email or text messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chelsea Lacey-Mabe is a staff writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Sickweather. Sickness Forecasting and Mapping 2016 http://bit.ly/1kSVwYN
2. Chipotle Mexican Grill. Learn What Happened 2015 http://https://chipotle.com/2015incidents
3. Kinsa. The World’s Smartest Thermometer 2015 http://bit.ly/20WeCST