Digital Epidemiology: on-demand public health

Guest Editor Sarianne Gruber (@subtleimpact) reviews the meta-trend of digital epidemiology, which gathers ‘digital exhaust’ information through social networks, chat rooms and other online media, analyzes it at the population level and tracks localized outbreaks of diseases like the Zika virus and flu. It even has inspired new models of vaccine delivery and patient transportation such as Uber Health and Circulation.

The Internet has a rather detailed picture of the health of the population, coming from digital sources through all of our connected devices, including smartphones. This is digital epidemiology: the idea that the health of a population can be assessed through digital traces, in real time. Digital Epidemiology: Tracking Diseases in the Mobile Age. M. Salathé, J. Brownstein et al.

As a Harvard Medical School Professor and the Boston Children’s Hospital Chief Innovation Officer, the plights of patients and the hurdles in care are Dr. John Brownstein’s starting points for questions and discovery. When the Community Transportation Association study reported “an estimated 3.6 million patients the United States miss at least one appointment due to lack of access to transportation”, Brownstein was determined to make this challenge his own. This fall, he launched the first customizable patient-centric digital transportation system – Circulation – a new vision for non-emergency medical transportation. As a Klick Health Muse attendee and having had the privilege to speak with John Brownstein, Ph.D., co-founder of Circulation, I would like to share what I learned about his journey as an epidemiologist, public health educator, and innovator.

Social Media’s Big Data: Preventing Epidemics and Tracking Drug Safety
Digital epidemiologists think in terms of “digital phenotype” to understanding the health of individuals. Uncovering critical information about what is happening at the population level is collectively called “digital exhaust”. These digital traces that are left behind, help track local outbreaks around the world. “In fact, you don’t need surveys, just mine what people are saying online. We combine social media to get real insights as to what is happening on the ground: facts and sentiment. The ability to understand risk and population health is fantastic with these emerging technologies,” opened Dr. John Brownstein at the 2016 New York City KlickMuse event.

Social media mixed with disparate sources of health data was how Brownstein began solving public health risks. (more…)