The World Health Organisation has reported a doubling of COVID-19 cases worldwide in the past six weeks. How do nations treat the sick and perform contact tracing during this often-insurmountable healthcare crisis?
In part, it’s a public health effort by the people, for the people: masks, social distancing, self-isolation, and, in this digital age, mobile health (mHealth) apps.
What’s working in the digital health space? Researchers from La Trobe University and Monash University have categorised and reviewed 29 mHealth offerings from governments, healthcare organisations and universities from 19 countries to identify best practice in COVID-19 apps.
“The first COVID-19 apps that were developed and widely publicised were contact tracing apps that notified users if they had crossed paths with another person infected with the virus,” explains La Trobe cyberpharmacist and researcher, Dr Kevin Yap.
“Since then, we have seen the emergence of symptom monitoring apps that collect information about a user’s health, and information apps that provide details about the coronavirus, good hygiene practices and guidelines to follow. Some countries developed quarantine apps, using mobile phone signals and GPS to ensure that quarantine measures were being followed.”
The results have been patchy. Online misinformation has multiplied almost as fast as COVID-19 itself. And while Singapore led the charge in developing a well-designed, Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing app, global uptake of similar innovations has been varied: “In many cases, these apps have pushed the limits of user privacy and received moderate uptake at best,” says Monash University researcher, Dr Danielle Couch. “The jury is still out on their overall effectiveness.”
These are all lessons learned, says Yap, who believes that digital platforms can be better harnessed for future health emergencies. “A multi-pronged approach is needed,” he explains. “The best practice mHealth app for COVID-19 should feature contact tracing, symptom monitoring and information provision about the pandemic. The information provided should be from credible sources, preserves privacy and open-sourced. It may also incorporate wearable tech or artificial intelligence.”
“We have identified these elements as features of the ideal COVID-19 app, but technology like this will only be effective if it is government-led and accepted by the community. To encourage acceptance and uptake, raising public awareness about the benefits of such apps through public education is important.”
“Contact tracing at an early stage, along with proper hygiene and social distancing practices, are still the best line of defence against COVID-19,” adds Yap. “So too is the sharing of good tech practice to enable governments to develop effective digital health strategies to manage this pandemic.”