The widespread use of several smartphone apps launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially contact tracing applications, can be seen as a positive development. However, more research needs to be done to determine how these technologies can be refined for future applications.
This was the main conclusion of a review paper published in Nature Biotechnology, the authors said, despite concerns about patient privacy and data security, the apps were beneficial for contact tracing, individual screening and a general understanding of outbreak epidemiology.
“While there were successes and failures in each category, outbreak epidemiology and individual screening were significantly improved by the reach of smartphone apps and accessory wearables,” the report said.
The main advantages of smartphone-based app data are near real-time results and the ability to extrapolate data from large populations. Applications developed to track flu, prior to the pandemic, could run to track COVID-19.
The use of apps to diagnose potential COVID-19 symptoms may also improve in the future as smartphone cameras become more sophisticated. An ideal diagnostic app should integrate features found in many apps on the market today.
“To be accessible to an underrepresented and underserved population, it must be able to integrate the information from any sensor, including less advanced mobile devices with limited features,” the report said.
Contact tracing, the most widely used COVID-19-related smartphone app feature, was cited by the paper as the most serious data privacy issues. The authors of the report believe that future contract tracing apps should consider not only proximity, but also local biometric, pathogen and environmental data to improve efficacy.
“The ideal contact tracing app would work in real time, protect data privacy, comply with local regulations, deliver actionable and measurable results, be on local devices to avoid bandwidth issues and, for public health purposes, require no login.” the report recommended.
WHY IT MATTER
With more than six billion smartphones in use worldwide, the ability of mobile apps to aid in the collection and dissemination of information will be critical in the future. Smartphones are already being used to collect geolocation data and other types of data collected by users.
However, as the document noted, the main issues to be addressed focus on data protection and privacy issues, as well as the challenges of digital health illiteracy and structural inequalities.
There are also signs that smartphone apps could be equipped with more advanced diagnostic functionality. A smartphone-based COVID-19 detection test from Australia showed a high degree of accuracy and found COVID-19 correct in 92% of infected participants in a clinical trial.
In addition, researchers found that a loop-mediated isothermal amplification-based methodology combined with smartphone detection was able to test for COVID-19.
THE BIGGER TREND
The use of mobile apps can be used extra preventively for populations at risk during pandemics or seasonal health events.
In August 2021, UK home care provider Cera launched a flu tracking and treatment app, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to support earlier diagnosis and faster treatment of flu in older populations.
“Continued use of apps within the digital infrastructure promises to be an important tool for rigorous research into outcomes, both in the ongoing outbreak and in future epidemics.” Nature Biotechnology report noted.