The widespread use of various smartphone apps launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably contact-tracing applications, can be seen as a positive development.However, more research must be done to determine how these technologies can be refined for future use cases.
This was the key conclusion of a review paper published in Nature Biotechnology, whose authors said that, despite patient privacy and data security concerns, the apps were beneficial to 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 substantially enhanced by the reach of smartphone apps and accessory wearables,” the report noted.
The main advantages of smartphone-based app data include near real-time results, and the ability to extrapolate data from large population groups. Applications that had been developed to track influenza, previous to the pandemic, were able to pivot to tracking COVID-19.
The use of apps to diagnose potential COVID-19 symptoms could also be improved in the future as smartphone cameras become more sophisticated. An ideal diagnostic app should integrate features found across a multitude of apps currently on the market.
“To be accessible to an underrepresented and underserved population, it should be able to integrate the information from any sensor, including that from less sophisticated mobile devices with limited features,” the report said.
Contact tracing, the most commonly used COVID-19-related smartphone app function, was cited by the paper as having the most serious data privacy issues. Authors of the report believe that future contract-tracing apps should consider not only proximity, but local biometric, pathogen and environmental data to improve efficacy.
“The ideal contact-tracing app would work in real time, preserve data privacy, comply with local regulations, lead to actionable and measurable outcomes, be on local devices to avoid bandwidth issues and, for public health purposes, not require opting in,” the report recommended.
WHY IT MATTERS
With more than six billion smartphones in use worldwide, the ability of mobile apps to aid in information gathering and dissemination will be critical going forward. Smartphones are already used to gather geolocation data and other types of data accrued by users.
As the paper noted, however, the key issues to be resolved focus on data protection and privacy issues, as well as on the challenges of digital health illiteracy and structural inequities.
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, correctly finding COVID-19 in 92% of infected participants of 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 LARGER TREND
The use of mobile apps could have additional preventive uses for at-risk populations during pandemics or seasonal health events.
In August 2021, U.K. 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 population groups.
“Continued use of apps within the digital infrastructure promises to provide an important tool for rigorous investigation of outcomes both in the ongoing outbreak and in future epidemics,” the Nature Biotechnology report noted.