Smartphone System Aids in Fight Against Infectious Diseases
By Mark Rosenberg, MD, MPP, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Task Force for Global Health
Big changes to global health can come in small packages – namely, smartphones. Via mobile health, or mhealth, health workers in developing countries are leveraging the handheld technologies to track health data about their communities in real time. At present, an mhealth platform called LINKS is being used in developing countries where neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as elephantiasis and blinding trachoma are endemic. Scientists at The Task Force for Global Health in Decatur developed LINKS to track how those diseases are being transmitted – with the potential application for tracking all types of health information.
LINKS, which is named for its ability to link data from the field to the cloud, is an information system that streamlines the data collection process. The Android app was created at The Task Force’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center using Open Data Kit – an open-source set of tools for data monitoring. Since 2012, LINKS has been used in conjunction with donated smartphones in more than 50 countries. The system has been vital to The Global Trachoma Mapping Project, the largest disease mapping project ever undertaken. It is also currently being used by the World Health Organization Africa Region to map five NTDs on the continent; for research studies to support NTD control and elimination programs; and in several clinical studies in developing countries.
How does LINKS work? When researchers or country program managers request LINKS for a project, Task Force staff work with them to set up a customized survey that is loaded onto phones. The survey instrument is flexible and can collect any relevant data such as the age, gender, and GPS location of the person who is interviewed for a particular study. The app also has a barcode scanner, which helps to track test results from blood, urine, or other samples taken. LINKS works on any cell phone network and does not require access to Wi-Fi.
Among other benefits, LINKS helps countries spot high levels of disease transmission and respond in real time with interventions. Similarly, if problems arise during data collection, the surveys can be easily modified. That flexibility also means that LINKS can be used to track different diseases or to collect and monitor all kinds of health data – an invaluable resource for countries with resource-poor health systems.