Broward County

Sick alert: App tells us where illnesses are spreading in Miami area


How sick is Miami?

We’re sick. We’ve got fever. We’ve got allergies. We’ve got colds.

An app — which takes an area’s temperature and allows users to look at maps that show where all the maladies are spreading — is telling us so.

Sickweather launched in November 2011, and scans social networks, including Twitter and Facebook, for indicators of illness.

CEO Graham Dodge calls it “a Doppler radar for sickness.” And as is the case with most inventions, the idea was born out of necessity.

When a stomach virus was making the rounds near his Baltimore home a few years ago, Dodge, a father of three with a newborn at the time, noticed that there was no information online where the sickness was manifesting in his area. After checking Facebook, he saw someone on his timeline post about being ill.

That’s when the light bulb lit up in his head.

After convening with two friends who had similar experiences, the trio came up with the idea of mining Twitter and Facebook for disease symptoms and mapping them in real time.

Three years later, the company retrieves two million reports of illness each month and allows users to search data on more than 23 different symptoms and illnesses, including asthma, chicken pox, cough, croup, ear infection, fifth disease, headache, nasal congestion, norovirus, pink eye, pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus, sinus infection, soar throat and whooping cough.

The patent-pending process uses keywords in public Facebook and Twitter posts and geotags them to pin them to a map, Dodge explained. Additionally, users can anonymously report their illnesses directly to Sickweather.

The program is sophisticated enough to differentiate between real symptoms and idioms.

“If someone has a high fever it goes into the fever map,” Dodge said. “But it disqualifies ‘dance fever.’”

Despite its reliance on public social media profiles and people actually broadcasting their illness, Dodge is convinced of his program’s reliability.

“I would say it’s very accurate,” Dodge said. “The response has been mostly overwhelmingly positive.”

Some in South Florida’s medical community are not as convinced.

“Even though the methodology, the idea is good, it is very difficult to know how accurate it is,” said Dr. Juan Acuna, a professor of genetics and epidemiology at Florida International University.

Acuna, who practiced medicine in Miami for more than 20 years and worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 11, thinks we have a long way to go before social media can provide valid, accurate data on illnesses.

“We always want real-time information and in general the app is a really good idea, but there are major caveats,” he said.

The main problem, he said, is that it depends on self-reporting.

“If you ask five to 10 of your co-workers right now, ‘Do you have a cold? Would you post about it right now?’ Most would probably say ‘No,’” Acuna said.

Even if three say yes and seven say no, Acuna said, “the power of the app is only 30 percent” in regards to its validity.

He said that using the app to compare the number of cases on a year-to-year basis is also problematic because people may overreport, grow tired of the app and stop reporting or discover it later on.

“There are 101 reasons why the accuracy of these systems is doubtful,” he said. “If this would work, the CDC would have this out right now.”

At the CDC, he said, “surveillance is done in several ways.”

For one, some diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases, have to legally be reported, Acuna said.

Additionally, the CDC conducts active surveillance by going to hospitals and seeking out sick people, he said.

Dodge, however, believes in the potential of his app.

“One mom thanked us because she received strep throat alerts one day,” Dodge said. “The next morning her son woke up with a high fever. Because she’d seen the alerts for strep she was able to get him on antibiotics right away. She didn’t miss a day of work and he didn’t miss school.”

The program has shown competency on a larger scale, too.

In 2012, Sickweather was able to successfully identify the early start of the flu season six weeks before the CDC, the company says. Another time, it correctly identified a surge in whooping cough cases two weeks before the media.

Dodge hopes to use the power of social media data-mining to prevent diseases from spreading.

Using Sickweather, Dodge said, spikes in sickness reports during allergy season can be linked to spikes in reports of bronchitis due to inflammation caused by the allergies. He suggests that treating allergy symptoms could prevent bronchitis.

True to its name, the company is also exploring the connection between weather patterns and certain diseases.

“We have done research into how weather correlates with illnesses,” Dodge said. For instance, he said, there is a correlation between warm, wet climate and cases of Ebola.

While Sickweather focuses on symptoms of less severe illnesses, Dodge said the team is working to “provide surveillance on Ebola if there is a real outbreak” in the United States. He added that patients of such serious illnesses don’t take to social media, which makes hunting for data more difficult.

Other improvements in the near future will include official alerts from the CDC and World Health Organization, Dodge said.

Recently, Sickweather teamed up with the doctors-on-demand mobile service Medicast, allowing users to call a doctor to their house using the app.

“We built an Uber-like experience for getting a doctor,” Medicast CEO and co-founder Sam Zebarjadi, comparing the service to the app-driven taxi service.

The company, which launched in Miami in summer 2013, aims to “use technology to solve an age-old question for high-quality healthcare,” Zebarjadi said.

Earlier this year, Zebarjadi, who has worked with mobile technology for almost 15 years, met the team of Sickweather at a mentorship program for technology companies focused on mobile health in Kansas City. It seemed like a natural fit, Zebarjadi said.

“As we worked on putting out our product, we kind of planted this seed together,” Zebarjadi said. “We just thought this would be a great opportunity.”

Sickweather users can now see where the closest Medicast doctor in their area is located and call him or her by clicking on the icon or downloading the Medicast app.

The service promises to have a doctor at the patient’s house in under two hours. So far, the company has delivered, but “if certain things take longer than they’re supposed to, our team gets notified and we actually talk to the customers,” Zebarjadi said.

But the convenient, tailor-made care comes at a price.

In South Florida, Medicast operates with standard pricing that translates to $199 for each visit, which includes a physical exam, diagnostics and, if needed, prescriptions.

Still, Zebarjadi said users’ experiences have been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“What we’ve found is people can’t even get an appointment until the following week,” Zebarjadi said.

The response from Medicast’s doctors has been similarly positive, according to Zebarjadi.

“The doctors are super receptive to this,” Zebarjadi said, adding that the program allows them to see people in their home and get a fuller view of their health situation.

The company has several ties to South Florida.

It first launched in Miami and its chief medical officer is Dr. Sahba Ferdowsi, who has been practicing medicine in Miami since 2008 and is based in Coral Gables.

“We just thought it was a great testing ground for us,” Zebarjadi said.

Medicast has since expanded to Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego in California.

As for South Florida the past week, according to the Sickweather map, there’s a fever going around from Kendall to Fort Lauderdale.