A Smart Way to Get Ahead of the Next Flu Surge

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Everyone, it seems, is sick right now. Walk into an office or school and chances are you’ll find plenty of empty seats, as everyone is laid up with a fever or heavy cold. Rates of flu-like illness are high across the northern hemisphere and don’t appear to have peaked. With one in four flu tests returning positive in the United States and about one in seven in the United Kingdom, a lot of people are out of commission. In the US, it is estimated that at least 6 million people had visited a doctor and 120,000 had been hospitalized by December 3. 

If we’d had a more detailed view of how cases were building this year, things might not have gotten so bad. Accurately detecting an outbreak’s early stages can show people—in real time, based on a postal code—where cases are rising and help them avoid exposure. Early signals of flu levels in each community also allow for better predictions of how the entire season will evolve, and what its consequences will be for the health system or businesses. 

This can be particularly useful for local doctors and nurses who need to prepare for an influx of patients, or for medical suppliers who need to coordinate regional stocks of drugs and personal protective equipment. With children hit particularly hard by respiratory viruses this season, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find over-the-counter painkillers and fever remedies in northern states, for example, as a national shortage in Canada has prompted desperate parents to seek supplies across the border.

Entrepreneur Inder Singh believes he has a tool that can help. For several years, his California-based technology company, Kinsa, has claimed to be two to three weeks ahead of public health officials when it comes to detecting clusters of illnesses down to the county level. Kinsa achieves this by collecting and analyzing temperature readings from more than a million smart thermometers across the US, data members of the public voluntarily share via their paired smartphones, along with symptom reports. Typically, a thermometer is the only medical device used in a household, Singh says, “so when you use it, it’s like a signal that someone is sick.”

Authorities are often slow to pick up on how a disease is spreading: Usually it takes days before someone’s fever, cough, or sore throat leads them to get tested, putting their results on the record. There’s then a further delay before the reports are sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (With the flu, this takes a week.) That means estimates of an outbreak’s size lag behind reality.

But with a smart thermometer, this essentially happens in real time. The devices operate via a Bluetooth-connected app, giving the company geographically accurate data about the onset, duration, and severity of flu-like symptoms that it shares anonymously with some health authorities and businesses, including pharmacies and manufacturers of cold and flu drugs. (For example, its early warning system shows that the risk of flu-like illness in New York’s Hudson Valley and Albany regions are slightly lower than in the rest of the state.) If a child has a fever and their parents use the thermometer too, it is relatively easy to determine how quickly a virus is spreading within a household. 

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