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Superbug app spreads with 100K downloads in first month

The free iOS app Epocrates Bugs + Drugs uses aggregated electronic health record data and geotagging to help users see superbug prevalence as well as sensitivity to drugs.

Warning: The information herein is not easily forgotten.
Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

An app that tracks the presence of superbugs and their sensitivities to drugs by ZIP code is making the rounds among doctors in the US. The app, which has been downloaded more than 100,000 times since it was released in early October, shot to the top of the Apple App Store's free medical app list in its first week alone and now boasts an average user rating of 4+ stars.

Epocrates Bugs + Drugs, a free app for iOS devices, uses aggregated electronic health record (EHR) data and geotagging to help users see both superbug prevalence and sensitivity to drugs by location. The developers, Athenahealth and Epocrates, add more than 6,000 lab isolate data points (from urine, blood, and skin samples) every day to keep the results fresh.

While the app isn't for a layperson -- unless you're into regular confirmation that E. coli is alive and well all around us -- its clinical use is clearly anything but niche. Results that are pulled from Athenahealth's cloud-based clinical database of 15 million patient records can be viewed by specimen type and then paired with Epocrates' drug content to help make prescription decisions.

Dr. Gerry Tolbert, a family physician in the Cincinnati area, says that since getting the app when it first came out, he finds himself using it about once a day in his practice. When he gets back a culture of urine or blood, for instance, he may be able to identify the bacteria but not yet know its sensitivity to the drugs he's considering turning to -- which is where the app comes in. It helps him make "a better educated guess on how to treat it."

Tolbert isn't surprised the app has become so popular so fast. "It is a very pretty app, but the information is actually incredibly useful," he said, adding that for physicians and clinicians in family practice, ERs, urgent care centers, and beyond, the app serves as something of a beefed-up hospital antibiogram in their pockets.

With more than 2 million people in the US contracting drug-resistant infections every year, and some 23,000 of them dying because of it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospital antibiograms have become an imperative to help ensure that patients are prescribed the most effective drugs as quickly as possible. The Bugs + Drugs app takes that data a step further by enabling physicians to search by location -- well beyond their own hospital or clinic -- and in real time.

Of course, if it's true that cell phones themselves are helping spread superbugs in hospitals, using this app to help fight them also involves dabbling in a bit of irony.